Leaving Our Beds is the Sacred Beginning of Liturgy

Misty Kiwak Jacobs Transfiguration of Our Lord Last Sunday After Epiphany February 19, 2023 Preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church Williamstown, MA

Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Matthew 17:1-9

Between the words that are spoken and the words that are heard, may the Spirit of God be present.

In the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus leads Peter and the Apostles up mount Tabor where they are absorbed into the glory of heaven undiluted. There Jesus’ clothing glows like the sun and his face becomes white as light. 

And then Moses and Elijah also appear, talking with Jesus. 

Why is Elijah here? “The rabbis of the Talmud imagined Elijah sitting intimately with God in the heavenly court and traveling back and forth between the divine and human realms.” (https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/elijah-the-prophet/)

Elijah was understood to be a forerunner of the Messiah, and according to Jewish legend would appear at the advent of the Messiah and would harken the same primal light which shone at the the Creation of the world. (Ginzberg, Louis. Legends of the Jews, Volume 2, p. 1021.)

And why is Moses on the mountaintop? Moses dominates the Torah, the five books God dictated to him on Mt. Sinai: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  

Moses negotiated with Pharoah for the Isrealites freedom, and led the Israelites out of slavery. Moses bears the Torah to God’s people. And again, according Jewish legend, Elijah would usher in the Messiah by raising Moses.

I want to digress here a moment to address gender in the Bible as I have promised I would; the lectionary won’t always cooperate with us so let us make a way. “Most of the named prophets in the Hebrew Bible are male, but there are female prophets, including Miriam, Deborah, Huldah and an unnamed prophetess in Isaiah 8:3 and a group of prophetesses Ezekiel 13:17-23.” (The Oxford Book of the Prophets)

Further, “there are feminist scholars who claim that the Hebrew Bible contains a much greater number of female prophetic figures and activities than has heretofore been acknowledged in common scholarship.” All of this to say, “the assumption of prophecy as a male privilege has been proven false.” (The Oxford Book of the Prophets)

Back to Mt. Tabor: When Peter and the apostles enter into this mystical encounter of Elijah and Moses together, with Jesus blazing like the sun, they have a cultural and historical understanding of the magnitude of what they are seeing. 

The apostles breathe in the rarified air of religious ecstasy, of ancient prophecy radically fulfilled. Here is spiritual intimacy with the great prophets and the messiah in the light of Creation. 

The French philosopher Georges Bataille believed that the role religion plays in a society is the search for “lost intimacy.”

Let’s explore the idea of “lost intimacy” for a moment. What sense of lost intimacy do we carry? What tenderness are we ever searching to regain? The first house we lived in? Or life before a particular death in the family?

Do we long for the lost intimacy of a doting grandparent or the early days of a romance, or the smell of our babies just out of the bath, or for meals with people no longer here?

What is Peter’s impulse in the presence of this saturating intimacy on Mt. Tabor? To make religion. ‘“Lord, it is good for us to be here. . .” Of course it’s good!

Have you ever had a dream of someone you love who has died? What do you do in that dream? I dream frequently of my father who died 20 years ago, and in almost every dream I hug him. “It is so good to see you.” I cling to him.

And Peter, too, wants to cling to the moment: “I will put up three dwellings . . . ” (Mt 17:4). 

I have peripherally always heard Peter’s was the wrong reaction, the putting up of tents. As a homebody who likes to nest, as someone who likes to putter about the house to recover from a day of socializing, or a day at church, a tent, a dwelling, 

to contain this soul-filling, light-soaked mystery, YES, putting up three cozy, hospitable dwellings seems like exactly the right thing to do. Let us preserve this experience and contain it in tents. Let us achieve stasis. Let us make religion.

But Russian Theologian Alexander Schmemann posits that it is precisely RELIGION that is guilty of calcifying and secularizing the experience of God’s kingdom. 

Peter’s natural reaction is a calcifying reaction; his reaction to the Glory of the Kingdom of God on top of Mount tabor is to turn it into a human creation, to turn into ideology.

Ideologies are human made constructions which enshrine the sublime, containing it in time and space for the sake of “how good it is to be here ”. Imagine Mt. Tabor preserved in a snow globe. Put it on the coffee table. So pretty. But glory and revelation ends there.

“Religion is just manmade ideologies.” What Christian hasn’t had an atheist accuse us of this? What is Schmemann’s antidote to religion as ideology? The answer might surprise you. It is LITURGY.

He tell us our participation in the liturgy begins individually in the mundane, embodied act of rising from our beds and leaving our houses. 

During our drive or walk to church this morning, “a sacramental act [was] already taking place, an act which is the very condition of everything else that is to happen”, that is happening among us now. (For the Life of the World)

In his Sermon on the Transfiguration Schmemann preached,

The divine light, permeating the entire world. The divine light, transfiguring man. The divine light in which everything acquires its ultimate and eternal meaning. “It is good for us to be here,” cried the apostle Peter seeing this light and this glory. And from that time, Christianity, the Church, faith is one continuous, joyful repetition of this “it is good for us to be here. ” 

Our access to this divine light which transfigures us is liturgy, and within liturgy, our access to the divine is the sacrament of the Eucharist. 

Sacraments, Schmemann writes, are both cosmic and eschatological, referring at one time both to “God’s world as he first created it and to its fulfillment in the Kingdom of Heaven” (The Eucharist, 34). 

The work accomplished through the sacraments in the context of liturgy is a process which begins with gathering. The Church, we the people, not the building, is the site of the coming of God’s Kingdom.

The liturgy is not a series of prescribed and choreographed rituals or rigid ideologies, either liberal or conservative, but an assembly of individuals forming Church and meeting the Divine,

a Church whose liturgy is meant “to involve all humanity, the whole cosmos, in the process of reconciling the world with God”.

The apex of this living, breathing worship is the Eucharist, a meal shared with one another, an act as intimate as a last meal among friends the night before one of them will die. A union even closer than standing with the Prophets on a windy mountaintop in primal light.

At this meal Jesus invites us into a disarmingly intimate encounter: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:54-56).