Each morning while hiking this summer in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, my group of three would gather to cook oatmeal over our little camp stoves, and gradually pack up camp in order to get back on the trail. One particular morning, my two friends asked me if I had happened to awaken in the night and step out of my tent. No, I said, I had not.
Too bad, they told me, it was the starriest night they had ever seen: the night sky ablaze with a vast quilt of brightly dancing starlight that was broad and deep and entrancing. Never seen anything like it, they said. It was the kind of night you’d remember for ever, they told me, the kind of night that could change your life, the kind of image you’d bring to mind when everything in the world seemed dark and you needed to remember that there is light in the world, there is hope. That’s the kind of beautiful night it was, they said.
Wow, I said, I wish I’d seen that. But I’d slept right through it.
There were other starry nights on our three-week hiking journey, but none compared, they assured me, to that night by Thousand Island Lake, in the shadow of Banner Peak, when the sky glistened and the stars dazzled. I imagine it was the kind of night that left you certain that there is a Power in the universe that pulses with light and heat, and leaves you grateful, not only to be a part of such a complex creation, but also to have had a peek at the Power that seems so often hidden in the world. But I can only imagine, because, of course, I never actually saw the exquisite sky that night. I was wrapped snugly in my sleeping bag, glad to be off my feet and deep in a happy sleep that left me ignorant of the Power that shone so brightly above me, just outside my tent.
That morning we packed up our things, as I say, and moved on. Maybe I’ll revisit that spot again some day, but the chances are slim. It had taken a week of walking to get there, mostly uphill, and it’s not exactly on the way to anywhere else. And who knows if the stars will be shining so brightly there again? There are other places where the night sky shines brilliantly, I know. But something tells me that the sight I missed is not easily replicated. In any case, that night is gone, and its particular brilliance lost to me, except in my imagination, and through the report of my friends.
I am at least glad to know that my two friends saw the sky that night. I am glad they told me about it. I am glad to know that the stars in the heavens still have the power to grab our attention and make us take note; to sing silently of the Power that made them and set the planets in their courses, and stirred the currents of the seas.
But I have to admit that I am a little envious of my two friends, in a childish way. Even after we grow up we tend to be childish about these things – these experiences we hear of someone else’s, but we don’t get to enjoy ourselves. We don’t necessarily whine to others about it, but inside we whine, which means we are more or less whining to God. How come Matt and Tom got to see the stars that night but I didn’t? You know what it feels like.
On that chilly morning that I learned I had slept while the stars blazed above me in a silent symphony, it never occurred to me to doubt the report of my friends or to suggest that they were making it up, or that it had been less fabulous than they recounted. It only seemed to me as though, because of the gossamer shell of my tent, I had missed seeing the display of Power that transfigured that night for my friends.
I wonder if it was like that when Peter and James and John came down from the mountain with Jesus after he was transfigured – glowing with white light, and the source of his astounding Power somehow more evident than usual, inescapably on display for the three friends who happened to be on the mountain with him, even though sleep was close at hand.
St. Luke tells us that they didn’t tell anyone about it at first. But they must have eventually decided to break their silence and tell the others about the amazing transfiguration they witnessed. And what did the others make of it when they heard the story? Did they doubt the veracity of this amazing sight? Did they wonder if it was made up, or at best exaggerated? Did they begin to come up with possible explanations, like, maybe the sun was behind Jesus, and it was low in the sky, and it kind of created a glow around him?
Or did they just think to themselves, Wow, I wish I’d seen that.
And did they wonder about the various gossamer barriers of their lives that might have prevented them from seeing it, might have prevented them from getting closer to Jesus. And did it occur to them that they might all have been at home sleeping at just the time Peter and James and John were fighting sleep and staying awake to see this wondrous sight?
Wow! Would have been great to be there and see that!
Of course, they had sensed the Power of Jesus. Of course, they knew he was different. Of course they could tell that everything was changing, much had already changed. But to see him transfigured…! What would that have meant to them? To peer into the bright light of the Power and see him shine!
Wow, I wish I’d seen that!
This morning we awaken, and we are told this story about the Power of the universe alight in this man Jesus, about whom we have been hearing all our lives. And it suggests to me a choice:
When we hear this story, we can dismiss it, as the kind of thing that sprang from the over-active imaginations of men with ulterior motives in an ancient and more gullible time – and there are plenty of people who would explain this story that way.
Or we can think to ourselves, Wow, I wish I’d seen that.
In which case it might occur to us that we have been sleeping through a lot of life, paying only a very little attention, and only too happy for the kinds of gossamer shrouds we wrap ourselves in, that prevent us from over seeing the Power of the universe that pulses with light and heat.
Mostly these barriers (like my tent) have only one purpose – to make us comfortable.
But, you know, you have to get up out of your tent in the dark of night if you want to see the galaxy twinkle.
That moment on the mountaintop, with Jesus shining and transfigured, is gone, just like that night in the Sierra Nevadas. We are not likely to pass that way again. But I am so glad we have ancient friends to tell us the story, to remind us of the time they saw the Power of the universe possess this One Man, who would give his life for us, and change everything for us!
And it hardly occurs to me at all to believe that it didn’t happen just the way the Scriptures say – although I cant imagine why or how it did happen. But, wow, do I ever wish I’d seen that!
And it makes me glad to be here with you, to tell the story, and to hear it again. It makes me eager to fight the waking sleep that so often beckons us to sleep walk through life. It makes me want to give up the comforts of my tent and sleep under the open skies, so to speak, lest I should miss some night of wonder, some enchanted evening when the Power of the universe is on display, its light and heat transfiguring the Presence of a Man whose name, I realize I know.
For if the universe is filled with Power, if there is transfiguring grace that changes everything, bringing to fruition God’s providence and hope, then its name is Jesus. And I pray I won’t be asleep when next his Power lights up the sky with a glory unlike any other power the world has ever known.
And if I am, then I hope at least one of you will tell me about it!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
10 February 2013
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia