Transfiguration Sunday [by Rev. Dr. Bullitt-Jonas]

Anglican lectionary:
Catholic lectionary:
1st Reading
Ex 24:12-18
Lev 19:1-2,17-18
2nd Reading

2 Pet 1:16-21
1 Cor 3:16-23

Matt 17:1-9
Matt 5:38-48
by Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Missioner for Creation Care (Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ)

Transfiguration and a radiant Earth

We couldn’t ask for more powerful readings than the ones for today, the last and climactic Sunday of the Epiphany season. Today we are summoned to the mountaintop to experience the transforming power of God. In our first reading, Moses is called up to Mount Sinai, “into the mountain of God” (Ex. 12:13), so that God can speak to him and establish the covenant between God and God’s people. The glory of God settles on the mountain like a cloud and it can barely be described – it is an awesome, elemental presence, something like a “devouring fire” (Ex. 24:17). Later in the Book of Exodus we read that as Moses prays on the mountain-top, listening to God with the love and attentiveness with which one listens to a friend (Ex. 33:11), the skin of his face begins to shine (Ex. 34:29). As Moses contemplates the glory of God, he becomes radiant with that glory.

Today’s Gospel passage from Matthew is likewise set on a mountain. Soon after Jesus tells his disciples that he will die and rise again, he takes with him Peter, John, and James and goes up on the mountain to pray. In the solitude of that holy mountain, with its long, sweeping vistas and its cold, clean air, Jesus’ prayer grows into an intense religious experience that recalls the experience of Moses. “[Jesus] was transfigured before them and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Matthew 17:2). To describe this change, Greek manuscripts use the word “metamorphosis” (metemorphothe); Latin manuscripts use the word “transfiguration” (transfiguratus est). Whatever you call it, it’s the same thing: at the top of the mountain, Jesus is swept up by the love that sustains the universe. What Dante calls “the love that moves the sun and other stars”[1] so completely embraces Jesus that who he really is, who he has always been, is briefly revealed. A dazzling brightness emanates from his face, his body, even his clothes. The sacred radiance at the center of reality is shining through him, bursting through his seams, streaming from his pores, and the three disciples can see it.

What just happened? The holy presence that secretly abides within every person and every part of the created world has suddenly, briefly become visible to the human eye. The vivid image of Jesus lit up from within aligns with the experience of mystics from every religion who speak of a vibrant, shimmering energy or light that flows through everything, although usually we don’t see it. In Asia, the cosmic life force is called chi in Chinese and prana in Sanskrit, and in many Eastern traditions, enlightenment is associated with a flow of energy throughout the body.[2] Christian mystics speak of the Holy Spirit as a Presence or energy that moves through the body, and the body of Creation. For Christians, there is something deeply personal in this energy: it is the dynamic, creative Presence of the Holy Spirit. When we sense its presence in ourselves or in the outside world, God seems to light up the edges of things or to shine out from within them. We see the hidden depth behind the surface of ordinary reality. The eternal makes itself known to us, and we may experience it as light, although it is beyond the reach of ordinary sight. That’s where the language of paradox and poetry comes in, where mystics speak of a “dazzling darkness” or a “dark radiance,” just as in this passage Matthew uses the language of paradox when he describes Jesus’ experience in terms of both a dazzling light and a “bright cloud” that “overshadowed” them. Something about perceiving that radiant darkness awakens our love.

We may not consider ourselves mystics, but anyone who has ever been overcome by the beauty of the world – anyone who, in contemplating the world, has ever experienced a wave of wonder and gratefulness and awe – anyone who has ever spent time looking into the eyes of a baby or studying the details of a leaf – anyone who has ever gazed for a while at a mountain range or watched the sparkling waters of a river as it rushes downstream knows what it’s like to see the hidden radiance of Christ, whose living presence fills the whole Creation. Whenever we look at the world – whenever we look at each other – with eyes of love, we see the hidden radiance, the light that is shining within each person and each thing, although they may know nothing about it. Seeing the world with eyes of love is to see the world shining – to see its suffering, yes; to see its brokenness and imperfection, yes; but also, to see it as cherished by God, as precious in God’s sight, as shining with God’s light. To see the world with eyes of love is to see it with God’s eyes.

So as we gaze at Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop, shining with the radiance of God, we see what Moses saw, what Jesus saw, and what poet Gerard Manley Hopkins saw: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

I think this is one of the great gifts that people of faith can offer the world in this perilous time: the perception of Creation as a sacred, living whole, lit up with the glory of God. For let’s be clear: we were born into a society that does not see the Earth like that. Most of us were not taught to see the natural world as sacred and lit up with God’s glory. It’s as if a veil were placed over our minds, just as Moses eventually placed a veil over his face to cover the glory that was shining out (Ex. 34:33). When our minds are veiled, we no longer see God’s glory. We dismiss the natural world as nothing more than the backdrop to what really matters: the human drama. Nature becomes something to be ignored, used up, exploited at will, dominated and assaulted without a second thought. We experience ourselves and other human beings as basically separate from the rest of Creation, entitled to do anything we want to it, with no regard for its integrity or value or needs or rights.

By now we know where that perception of the world has taken us: scientists are reporting with increasing concern that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes and that human civilization is at risk of collapse. Gazing at Jesus shining on the mountain is like medicine for our troubled spirits. It removes the veil from our eyes and restores our inward sight. For we are gazing on the one who loved us into being, the one who tells us that life and not death will have the last word, the one in whom all things are held together (Col. 1:17) and whose presence fills the whole Creation (Eph. 4:10).

So when we see God’s Creation being desecrated and destroyed – when we see God’s good Earth being poisoned by toxins and pollutants, and laid waste by corporate greed – when we learn from scientists that a mass extinction event is now underway, what they are calling a “biological annihilation”[3]– when we recognize that burning coal, gas, and oil is pushing the planet to break new records for heat, causing droughts, floods, and monster hurricanes, drowning cities, and accelerating wildfires – when we understand that the people hurt first and hardest by the effects of a changing climate are the poor – when we realize that, unless we change course fast, we will not leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world – then we are moved to take action. For we want to bear witness to the love of Jesus that is shining on the mountain and shining in our hearts. We want to honor the glory of God’s Creation and to protect it from further harm.

When it comes to tackling climate change, there is so much that we as individuals can do. Maybe we can plant trees. Save trees. Recycle more. Drive less. Drive electric. Eat local, eat organic, eat less meat and move to a plant-based diet. Maybe we can support local farms and land trusts. We can fly less – and, if we must fly, we can buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. If we have financial investments, we can divest from fossil fuels; if we’re college graduates, we can push our alma mater to divest, as well.

Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we also need systemic change. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made it clear that in order to avoid a catastrophic level of climate change, we must rapidly transform every aspect of our society and economy. To do that, we’ll need to use our voices and our votes, and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary.

So, thank God for the leadership of young people, starting with Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who walked out of school back in August 2018 to demand climate action, and whose steadfast, unyielding call that leaders address the climate emergency has galvanized the world community and inspired millions of people across more than 150 countries to take to the streets on behalf of what our Prayer Book calls “this fragile Earth, our island home.” Thank God for the Sunrise Movement, which is mobilizing young people – and older supporters, like me – to fight for a just and habitable future. Thank God for all the individuals and communities of faith and for all the movements worldwide that are rising up to say: Enough! We will not stand by and let this beautiful world and its human and other-than-human communities be destroyed! Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive!

Today we stand on the mountain top, soaking up the light of Christ and letting ourselves be filled with his love. Right now, the glory that shone through Jesus Christ is shining in our hearts, longing to blaze up like fire and to melt away everything in us that is less than love. On Wednesday we will follow him down the mountain and into the 40 days of Lent, that precious season that invites us to re-orient our lives to the love of God. Day by day we intend to watch for the light and listen to the love, until the day comes when we “see Jesus in every aspect of existence”[4] and perceive at last that even the ashes of Lent – even the dust itself – is shining.

by Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Massachusetts

[1] William Johnston, “Arise, My Love…”: Mysticism for a New Era (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000), 115.

[2] Johnston, “Arise,” 115.

[3] Tatiana Schlossberg, “Era of ‘Biological Annihilation’ Is Underway, Scientists Warn,” New York Times, July 11, 2017,

[4] “The paths we travel on our sacred journey will lead us to the awareness that the whole point of our lives is the healing of the heart’s eye through which we are able to see Jesus in every aspect of our existence.” (St. Augustine)