In the wee hours of an autumn morning way back in 1980, I was involved in an automobile accident.
It was during my senior year at the University of Maine, where I’d been working as a managing editor for the student newspaper; and in those days long before internet and email attachments made things much easier, it was my responsibility to deliver the layout flats for the next day’s paper to the printer in Ellsworth, a journey of some 40 miles from campus. As I’ve said, it was very late, but I was also wide awake and heavily caffeinated (not to mention a whole lot younger then!) and doing fine; at least I was until I came around this blind curve and, despite swerving to avoid it, firmly struck a deer that had leapt out onto the road in front of me.
Now, I was not hurt at all and the car was not seriously damaged; even the deer was merely stunned and soon bounded back into the woods, none the worse for wear. Looking back on it, what could easily have been a tragic situation ended up little more than a fender bender, but even now what I remember is that the whole experience left me a bit shaken.
As I recall, however, it also had a rather humbling effect on me, and for an all-too-brief period of time I was not only profoundly aware of the fragile nature of human life (as one might expect), but also cognizant of my very, very small place in the universe. For several days afterward I noticed the things and people around me like never before: I paid attention to the tiniest nuances of life and living, I wondered at the smell of the air, marveled at the sound of leaves crunching beneath my feet; and even took close notice of the beating of my own heart, all the while pondering who I was amidst all this wonder (I know… it was all rather dramatic, but hey, I was 21!).
Of course, as so often is the case in such situations, a day or two later I was back to “normal,” with all the wonder having melded back into the routine of my daily academic life. But I never did forget what it was to feel, even for a little while, so incredibly gifted with all that life and living has to offer and yet at the same time so utterly unworthy of all of its blessings.
Actually, as it turned out there would be a number of other times in my life that I would feel that way again: the day that Lisa and I were married; the moments when my three children were born; at my ordination to the Christian ministry; and even in those days just before and after my father passed away… in truth, there have been (and continue to be ) countless moments both large and small – times that were utterly joyful or profoundly sad – when there was this palpable awareness of God’s Spirit moving in my life or in the lives of others in ways that transformed those lives in ways I could never have imagined, much less expected; moments of grace so rich and powerful made even more incredible and precious by the realization that I had absolutely nothing to do with it!
Each year about this time, as the Christian calendar moves from the light-filled season of Epiphany to the arduous journey to the cross that encompasses Lent, we in the church return to the story of Christ’s transfiguration on a “high mountain apart,” (Mark 9:2) as three of his disciples looked on in awe-struck wonder. This is a story of the ultimate “mountain-top experience” that points to the magnificence of the divine presence which is seen in Jesus, and it’s filled to overflowing with God’s mystery and power. But amazing as that is, I must confess that every time I return to this story, my thoughts always seem to be on what those three disciples must have been thinking as it happened!
We know, for instance, that Peter immediately wanted to preserve the moment forever by building dwellings on this spot where Jesus was conversing with Moses and Elijah. But what about James and John; did the sight of Jesus’ face shining “like the sun” with clothes “dazzling white” (Matthew 17:2) open up for them the possibilities of the infinite? Was every one of their senses suddenly awakened by the presence of the divine in their midst; how did the air smell and how did the light of that transfiguration illumine the trees and rocks that surrounded them atop the mountain? Did they have an awareness in that glorious moment that there was so much more to their lives now than their fishing nets? In that fleeting moment, could they have possibly imagined, even in a glimmer, what the future held for each of them? Almost certainly there so much happening that it was overwhelming; it is no wonder that by the time that voice spoke from the “bright cloud” proclaiming that this was God’s son, “the Beloved,” (Matt. 17:5) the disciples had long sense fallen to the ground in utter fear! For such is what happens when all of the wonder of life as God intends opens up before you!
This story is also a pivotal moment in the gospel narrative; it’s about from this point on that we read of how Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51) with all of what that journey implies. So even as it’s happening, we know that very soon it will be time for those three disciples to come down from the mountain and continue walking “down in the valley” and ever closer to the cross. So I have to imagine that the whole experience ended up as bittersweet at best, made all the more so when Jesus instructs them to “tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead,” (Matt. 17:9) understanding that at this point they had barely a clue as to what all of this really meant. And if you read on in the gospels, almost immediately it was back to the work of following Jesus as he healed the sick and brought the good news of God’s kingdom to all the people in every village along their journey, so in truth, there was likely little time for them to consider what had just happened up on that mountain.
And yet… I’m sure they did. Perhaps in the morning when the bright beauty of the rising sun reminded them of another dazzling light they’d seen; or maybe at the end of a long day when, drifting off to sleep they’d revisit this lingering memory of an event not of their own making… something that was so utterly ethereal and yet as certain as their very breathing…
…something that would define them, and us all, forever.
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry