There are certain moments that divide a life into before and after. The birth of a child; baptism as an adult; a wedding day; the death of a spouse; a serious accident or diagnosis; a national catastrophe. We probably all know where we were on September 11 2001. The images of that day are burned into our memories: I wish I could unsee them. A more personal moment for me is my ordination to the priesthood: in the Episcopal Church we believe that ordination is an ontological event: we are never the same again.
These before and after events may bring together the earthly and the supernatural: we sense the presence of something beyond ourselves, perhaps overwhelming love, or the awareness of our own mortality, a national vulnerability, or a strong vocational impulse.
The story of Elijah’s ascent is one of those moments for both Elijah and his apprentice Elisha. Elijah is to be carried off to God’s nearer presence – he’s one of the very, very few people in the Bible who, we are told, never died. Elisha is granted the privilege of witnessing this event. The younger man has demonstrated admirable faithfulness and dogged persistence: every time Elijah tries to spare him the trauma of a final goodbye, he insists on sticking around.
But in the end, Elijah goes where Elisha cannot follow, carried off in a chariot of fire; and the prophetic power passes to Elisha, symbolized by his retrieval and assumption of the mantle that Elijah left behind. It was surely a day and a sight that Elisha would never forget, a day that changed his life.
Two weeks ago my last aunt died. My parents had nine siblings between them, so there were a lot of aunts and uncles around when I was a child, not to mention literally dozens of cousins. When Aunt Sally took her last breath, it was a milestone for our extended family; as I wrote to my siblings, we are the oldies now. The training wheels for adulthood have really come off now. The passing of a generation is a before and after moment: in some mysterious way, we feel more vulnerable, because we are next.
Mark’s account of the Transfiguration comes at the halfway mark of the Gospel: it is literally a turning point, as Jesus and his disciples reach the northernmost point of their travels. From this moment on, they will be heading towards Jerusalem, both literally and figuratively. From his vantage point on the mountain peak, Mark looks back to Jesus’ baptism and forward to his resurrection; the event is like a sort of narrative tent pole in the middle, holding up the whole story.
It is a critically important moment, as we see Jesus speaking on equal terms with Moses and Elijah, and the divine voice repeats the words heard at his baptism, this time directing them to the disciples: “This is my Son, the Beloved: Listen to him!” The three disciples, in their terror and confusion, are to bear witness to what they have seen and heard – but not yet, not until Jesus has completed his mission and risen from the dead, a miracle which will prove that he is much more than Moses or Elijah.
In some parts of the Christian tradition, a clear conversion experience is a prerequisite for being recognized as a true believer. You have to have had a distinct before and after moment of being called to give your life to Christ. The evangelical preaching tradition centers around issuing an irresistible personal invitation to meet Jesus: this is what’s known as an altar call.
When I was 13 or 14, I attended an open-air revival in downtown Belfast, led by the unlikely named Arthur Blessitt, a traveling preacher who dragged a cross around the country (the cross had a little wheel on the end to make it easier). I don’t remember what he said, but it was very exciting. My friend and I were caught up in the moment and pushed our way through the crowd to answer the altar call. I went home with my pockets full of stickers that said “Smile! God loves you!”. After a couple of weeks of me being really annoying, my fervor cooled and I was restored to my usual teenage self. Looking back, I can see that the “conversion experience” was a purely emotional event, an empty vessel, with no substance to sustain it.
In our Anglican way of faith, we are less dramatic. John Wesley, who was an Anglican to the end of his days, spoke of feeling his heart strangely warmed by a reading of Martin Luther’s commentary on the letter to the Romans. That’s about as dramatic as we get. For many of us cradle Anglicans, baptized as small children, we have never known a time when we didn’t think of ourselves as Christians. The extent to which we take this identity seriously might fluctuate throughout our lives, but most of us cannot point to a specific moment when we went from being non-believers to believers.
Anyone who has grown up in the Episcopal Church since about 1980 will likely have been offered the sacrament of Communion from the time when they could first reach out a pudgy toddler hand for it. That said, I rejoice with those who have had a dramatic and lasting conversion experience: there is no limit to the ways God can become known to us.
We Anglicans have our own version of the altar call. We believe that conversion is a lifelong project, that we are invited over and over again to turn our lives around and to follow Jesus. Every time we say “The gifts of God for the people of God” we are issuing an altar call. Come and receive the body and blood of Jesus, given for you, and be changed by it. Join the mystical communion of saints, join with us in the project of transforming the world, as we ourselves are continually transformed by God’s redemptive love. And we answer the call by joining in the sacrament and becoming part of the body of Christ all over again.
After the vision faded, Jesus and his disciples didn’t stay on the mountaintop. They had to come back to the real world so that Jesus could continue his mission, as he turned his face towards Jerusalem. But Peter and the others didn’t leave their experience there: they carried with them the vision, the fear, the voice that had proclaimed Jesus as God’s son. They were changed forever by their encounter with the divine. I am certain that the Transfiguration was a before and after experience for each of them; for the rest of their lives they would tell the story of the moment when they knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus was the one sent by God, the one who had come to change their world, and ours.
As we turn our faces towards Lent, we too journey towards Jerusalem and the cross on a hill. Our liturgical tradition forms us to approach Easter each year as if for the first time, understanding that Holy Week presents a before and after opportunity for us. We are invited to go deep into the mystery of the Passion, so that we may find the fullness of joy when we welcome the day of resurrection and God’s triumph over evil, the defining before and after moment of all creation. The Transfiguration is a fitting transition story, reminding us of who Jesus is, as we prepare to make our spiritual pilgrimage through the holy season ahead. Amen.