Mosaic along entryway to the basilica of St. Peter, Vatican City
In today’s installment of our telling of the story of Jesus, welcome to the Transfiguration: the holy day that irreverent seminarians everywhere irreverently refer to as Sparkly Jesus Day. It captivates our imaginations. It’s just easy to be drawn in by this idea of Jesus on the mountaintop with his closest disciples, his face shining, his clothes a brilliant white, with Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophet. It is, for the three disciples who came along, a reality-altering experience: this teacher they’ve been following is definitely not just another dude, and only the three of them get to witness this.
We as humans seem to be wired to be attracted to both shiny things and exciting new information, and this, for the disciples present, was both. And before they leave, the disciples are strictly warned not to tell anyone what they had seen until Jesus is risen from the dead.
Can you imagine how awkward they were when they came down the mountain?
Where’d you guys go?
: Peter and John look at each other :
“Oh, just to pray.”
: Thomas looks at James :
“That’s it? Nothing happened? You guys look like you’ve seen, like, a dead person or something.”
: Three disciples remember seeing Moses and Elijah, and James remembers that Elijah technically didn’t die according to the tradition, but Moses was definitely a dead person :
Thomas blinks. “Guys?”
: James snaps out of pondering whether Elijah counts as a dead person :
“Oh, no, no. Nothing happened. Just praying. Lots of praying.”
: Peter, James, and John glance at each other again and stalk away suddenly :
The disciples’ camp really must have been a strange place. Actually makes me feel a lot better about how strange church can be. Awkwardness is a family tradition.
We may have never seen the Son of God revealed, but on some level, we can relate: it’s happened to all of us before. We learn something — a great revelation that changes everything — that no one else knows. And it’s exciting and it’s awesome, and we’re told to keep it a secret. It’s almost excruciating, isn’t it, to keep the news to yourself, especially when what you’ve learned is game-changing. You learn of a new job opportunity for yourself of a loved one, but no one else is allowed to know until later. Or you learn that a boss you once thought was bitter and tough is actually thoughtful and giving, but doesn’t want anyone else to know, lest they lose their hard reputation. A close friend or family member tells you she’s pregnant but doesn’t want anyone to know yet. Keeping these exciting secrets to ourselves can absolutely tie us in knots, especially since we as humans just have a love for shiny, new, exciting information.
Peter and James and John get a front row seat to one of the most amazing displays in human history: the Son of God revealed, in shining light, next to Moses and Elijah.
They really must have thought they were special, you know.
I mean, wouldn’t you if you were one of them? When someone trusts you with information, you feel special. So imagine that x1000. Imagine that Jesus chose you to see him sparkle and to meet Elijah and Moses in the flesh when you didn’t even think that was possible. Jesus did not choose everybody. Just you three. You must be special. Jesus got special plans for you.
How quickly we make things about us.
We’re not just drawn to things that shine; we want to shine.
At first I thought it was just me. But only a few chapters later, right after Jesus flat out tells his disciples that they’re going to Jerusalem where Jesus will die and be raised in a speech that literally starts with “Look, we’re going to Jerusalem where the religious authorities will have me killed,” James and John’s mom comes up to Jesus with her boys by her side.
You can check the text on this. Jesus gets salty. He says, “What do you want?” (Matthew 20:21 NRSV). And she makes her request that her sons sit on his right hand and his left hand when he comes into his kingdom. It’s as if she says, “So you’re going to God — bring my sons to glory with you, because they’re special, you know.” This is when he gives one of his most famous teachings: that the one who wants to be great must be a servant, because Jesus is a servant.
“Don’t you get it?” he seems to say. This isn’t about you being special. It isn’t really about you. I know. Depending on where we are in life, this news may be a relief or it may hit us right in the ego. Personally, I strive for the former and trend towards the latter.
The Church’s story is made up of beloved, beautifully made, diverse people. But the Church’s story isn’t about any one of us. When we celebrate our diversity, we celebrate the creativity of a God who created so many different kinds of humans. We don’t pretend like we’re all the same. We celebrate the widely different cultures that God’s beloved humans create. We look at how different we are and we celebrate a God who is big enough to love us all. The Church’s story is a story about God.
A new trend has cropped up within the mainline church for Ash Wednesday. As articles about it made the rounds, my friends reacted in a few different ways, from enthusiasm to outright horror: Glitter Ash Wednesday.
To portray it fairly, I have to say that it’s not as odd as it sounded to me at first. The idea is that ashes are mixed with glitter, and churches are encouraged to use glitter ash to represent their acceptance of the LGTBQ community. Because some of my friends whom I trust reacted enthusiastically and thought it would be healing for their communities, I affirm the ability of pastors and congregations to make their own decisions around the rites of the church. But I have to admit: with the Transfiguration fresh on my mind, my first thought was:
“Wait. No. All that glitters is Jesus.”
Ash Wednesday, this coming Wednesday, in this grand telling of the story of Jesus that happens every year in the universal Church, is the day that we have to come off of this mountain of the Transfiguration and descend into Lent and the path to the cross. It’s a day when the church year puts our mortality in our faces — well, on our faces. It is a day that we declare that we are all mortal, all fallible, all so, so human — and somehow we are still beloved.
From dust we came, and to dust we shall return.
Not dust and glitter. Just plain, organic, environmentally friendly dust. All of us. All that glitters around here is Jesus.
The problem with Glitter Ash Wednesday, for me, is that the story isn’t about us. Even though it is not the intention, the implication of glitter ash is that churches who use glitter are somehow more welcoming, more fabulous. We aren’t. We all fall short even, maybe especially, when it comes to welcoming others.
Signs of welcome should always be visible, but all that glitters is Jesus. Jesus transfigures us, all of us, into something beautiful — not synthetic glitter, but beautiful, God-made, God-redeemed dust.
The truth is that Peter and James and John were chosen for a reason. They went on to become pillars of the church. But they did it by being servants and, for at least two of them, martyrs. That requires more than feeling special. It requires purpose.
Some of us may crave attention, but we all need a purpose. Psychologist Viktor Frankel once wrote, “The one who has a why can bear any how.” We’re willing to endure all kinds of things for something greater than ourselves: for family, for love, for friends for God. We’re hard-wired to help each other, to work together, to be something greater than we could ever be alone.
The church does that by stressing our common humanity and common creation by God. None of us is better or more special. The neither I nor the council that was installed today is any more special or more called than you are. We’re called in different ways, for sure, but all united in baptism, all called to serve. We celebrate our diversity and differences and a God creative enough to make us all and big enough to love us all. We use our diverse gifts and identities to make the church better. We’re part of something bigger.
All that glitters is Jesus, and Jesus takes our dusty selves and transfigures us into something beautiful together. And that is good news indeed.
So let us rest on the mountaintop with Jesus, around the table, secure in love, not needing to be better than anyone, but blissfully content to be in the presence of Jesus, witness the sparkle, and come back transformed. Amen.