The Revised Common Lectionary is a book used to guide Protestant churches in worship. Certainly, not all Protestants follow it. After all, we who are Protestant are no less than that: Those who protest. My earliest spiritual mentors would have never used the Lectionary. It was only for the elitist “high church;” too restrictive, sure to “quench the Spirit;” and yes, it was far too Catholic.
These objections aside, I have learned that the Lectionary provides congregations – entire denominations – a structured, thematic reading of the Bible week after week. This allows parishioners to hear the full chorus of Scripture, not just a few favorite voices.
The Lectionary theme for this weekend is “The Transfiguration.” It was a stunning moment in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. As the gospel writers recall, Jesus and three of his disciples climbed to the top of a high mountain. There, “Jesus’ appearance was transformed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Then Elijah and Moses appeared and began talking with Jesus. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my dearly loved Son. Listen to him.’”
Theologians have deliberated for centuries the significance and meaning of this story. I’ll leave the finer points of those discussions to others, except to say, that such a dazzling “mountain top experience” must have energized Jesus and his disciples for the journey before them.
They would need the boost, for their most trying days were about to begin. Jesus would descend the holy mountain, his disciples on his heels, and march toward Jerusalem; into controversy, into suffering, and on to a cross. The mountain was needed, because the journey into the valley lay immediately ahead – a valley chocked full of confusion, bewilderment, and more questions than answers.
Today, if you visit the traditional site of the Transfiguration, you go to Mt. Tabor. In my view, it is one of the most beautiful places in Israel. The green, fertile Holy Land stretches out in all directions beneath you, while the cooling winds of the Mediterranean dance in massive pine trees casting their shade.
It is easy to imagine heaven coming down to earth in a spot like that. But Jesus didn’t take the disciples up to the mountain to remain there, in heaven, so to speak. He took them there to fuel them; to bolster their faith; to encourage them for the valley below.
Of this be certain: You will have to go back down in the valley, for as sure as the occasional moments of glory, there is the daily task of gutting life out below. And as sure as the dazzle of heaven, is the dullness of earth.
Yes, we need the mountain. We should visit as often as we can to breathe lofty, rarified air. We watch heaven rip open and spill its contents to the ground. Then, encouraged and filled with wonder, we hit the trail , descending the mountaintop to live real lives of real faith in a real world.
I’ve begun to pay close attention to the answer someone gives when asked, “Who are you?” For most of us have no honest answer whatsoever to the question. We are skillfully adaptive; as emotional chameleons, we will become what others want us to be. Thus, we lose any sense of self-identity.
Certainly, this is a coping mechanism. In order to get what we feel we need from others, we contort ourselves into the form that will please them. All the while, the real person beneath all those years of coping, bargaining, and striving begins to disappear. Or, we choose a part that gives us some kind of validity, and we never let this role go. Our job, nationality, political affiliation, or hobby: These superficial roles can overtake who we rally are.
Consider how many middle-aged men who are in a wretched condition because they are no longer the young, athletic, studs on campus. That was their identity, and now it is gone. How many middle-aged women traverse land and sea, spending a war pension to hold on to those cheerleader looks and bodies from thirty years earlier? They must hold to that identity or they feel they are lost.
I can illustrate this with an amusing story from one of my sons. When he was young, he had a short but intense season of life where he wanted to be – he was in his mind – Buzz Lightyear. He had the costume left over from Halloween, and wanted nothing more than to wear it all the time. It was sweet and fun as he bounced and blasted around the room, until it was bath time.
“No, you can’t take a bath as Buzz Lightyear. You have to take the costume off…No, you can’t be Buzz Lightyear at school. It will distract the other students…No, you can’t wear the Buzz Lightyear costume to Aunt Inez’s funeral.”
What happened to him when he had to give up that identity? He wept and wailed as if it was the end of the world! Was he losing his identity? Of course not. The real child was beneath that silly costume – a costume that became more ill-fitting with every day – and everyone could see this; everyone, that is, except him.
That story is parabolic, for we all cling to costumes and masks that we falsely believe make us who we are. The falsity must go; our costumes must be stripped away; so that we – the real us – that God has so wonderfully and fearfully made can again spring to life. Or, stated more accurately, so that the true person can come to life for the first time.
Jungian analyst James Hollis offers this cure: “You are here to be yourself, not through selfish injury to others, but in humble service to that possible person you are intended to be. It will be up to you to find the courage, and the persistence, to live this out, as best you can.”
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