The season after Epiphany always appropriately features a series of epiphanies. Epiphany is the name of a holy day, but it’s also a word that means manifestation. So a series of manifestations of God have been included in this season, which concludes this week. Apart from the actual day of Epiphany itself, the first time Jesus was revealed to any non-Jews, there are three particular manifestations that are classically associated with this time of year. The first of them is the Baptism of Christ, the second is the miracle of his turning water into wine at Cana, and the third is the capper, the one we always read the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday, the Transfiguration. (You’ll note that our closing hymn today gives a nod to all three.)
In this fascinating reading, Jesus has brought Peter, James, and John with him up to the summit of a mountain, and as they look at Jesus they begin to see his glory. His clothes shine like blinding sun reflecting off white snow. But that’s not all: two of the greatest heroes of their Jewish faith, Elijah and Moses, appear out of nowhere. Finally a cloud swallows their entire field of vision, they hear the very voice of God telling them that the One to listen to is Jesus, his beloved Son -- and then it’s over. When they head back, shellshocked, down the mountain, Jesus starts talking, and he’s talking about dying. He also mentions rising from the dead, but they can’t even process that. It says in the next verse after our reading ended today, “they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean.” As well they might.
Now this event, this manifestation, like the Baptism of Christ and like the miracle of changing water to wine at Cana, offers us a fair amount of drama. A fair amount of glory. And when we connect with glorious manifestations of God like this, it can be pretty impressive and pretty heady. We can start to say, "you know, I like it up here. It’s just splendid. And the music is sublime, isn’t it? Let’s revel in this." Nearly every time a manifestation of God or an experience of glory happens in Scripture, however, it happens in a way that avoids inviting us to just stay and luxuriate in it for its own sake. We’re never really encouraged as Christians to stop at enjoying the glory. In fact, mountaintop moments in the Bible, and in our lives, are very frequently followed by an abrupt turn -- to the world’s problems and issues, to dealing in some way with sin and darkness, or to a call to get to work.
With the Baptism of Christ, it’s Jesus being driven into the desert to be tempted. With Peter, John, and James today, it’s the Cross, grappling with their Lord’s imminent death and resurrection. Glory, yes; manifestation, yes, but so often followed by this serious and swift turn. I don’t quite want to say “back to reality,” because the epiphanies we hear about this season are real, and so are our own epiphanies, but they are not given so that we can sort of enshrine them as pleasurable moments that give us a refuge over against daily life and daily work. Some religious traditions can put a fair amount of emphasis on getting out of mundane life up into some kind of rarefied, personal spiritual attainment. Christianity when it’s in good health tends to be pretty skeptical about that kind of escape. After an epiphany, at our best we Christians don’t walk away and say “Well, that was awesome. Hope we get another day like that again soon. Too bad the rest of life is so mundane.” No, for us God is in the mundane. For us grace and glory go all the way down. They’re not something we work our way up to on special occasions, they are something that is percolating through our world, sourced from the manifestation of Christ, but bubbling up from beneath and beside us just as much as from above.
True experience of Jesus Christ is never an escape. It never leads us away from reality. Whether as dramatic as the Transfiguration, or as small as a moment of peace at the communion rail or a quiet smile at an apt phrase in one of the Daily Office readings, if it is true experience of the God who gives himself in Christ, its nature is to open up, eventually, onto even the most seemingly mundane and unpleasant spaces of life.That opening and that bubbling up starts, often, within the ordinary relational life of the church -- the kitchen or the parking lot or the work day -- and then moves into other friendships, or your home, or your workplace, all the way down and all the way out. So that eventually your moment of peace opens onto places in the world that need peace. Your glimpse of the beauty of God flows into caring for someone whose life has been marred by ugliness. Your epiphany about God’s power bubbles up and becomes, say, realizing that you have misused your power, and taking that to confession. And so on and so on. So it’s really no wonder that, so often, these manifestation stories in Scripture are followed by a turn. Whether it is a turn to preparing for concrete service and action, as it was after Jesus’ baptism, or a turn to confronting suffering and sin as in today’s Gospel.
As we come out of this season of manifestations and realize that Lent is nearly here, it’s not a bad time to ask, "Are we allowing that turn in our lives? Is the grace and the glory going all the way down for us? What happens right after these magnificent Sunday mornings? Where outside these walls, in the seemingly mundane or even the seemingly hopeless, is the beauty and love of Jesus that we experience here at Emmanuel seeking to bubble up?" This Lent, we want to give each other a chance to work on that question together as a spiritual family. I can’t remember a Lent, other than maybe my very first one after I became a Christian, whose potential I have been this excited about. This Lent we will be working together as a team, sharing week by week the same journey and the same spiritual practices, all intended to bring us as a church community into the kind of moments in ordinary life where Christ bubbles up. I hope you’ll pick up your guidebook to this pilgrimage and take it home, or download it to your phone from our website so you’ll have it with you.
Every week, as we walk this family journey, we Emmanuelites will be engaging together in small behaviors that the Prayer Book tells us are the way Christians observe Lent: “self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.” You’ll hear those six core behaviors again on Wednesday. And several of them will be echoed in additional parish events, like Stations of the Cross every Friday at 12:15, and a Lenten Evensong on March 4th. There will be a gathering every Sunday between the services to preview the week to come and review what we discovered on our pilgrimage the week before. We will also be reading together the sections of the Gospel of Mark appointed in the daily Episcopal lectionary, including a binge-read of Mark over a simple soup supper one week from tonight.
I don’t have to tell you, after what we’ve been through the past few weeks, that the possibilities for community-building and spiritual growth this parish-wide opportunity offers are especially timely right now, and I hope you will very seriously consider taking part. Emmanuel needs you. And I guarantee you that the experience, if you use that guidebook intentionally, will help you discover all kinds of things about yourself and all kinds of things about the spiritual life. And it will help us as a church body strengthen our steps in walking God’s path for us.
The spiritual life is not basking in comforting or pretty moments and then going home. It’s not being a consumer of religious goods and services. The spiritual life is what you do in the aisle at County Market, how you react to the daily news, where you turn when you need to make a decision, how you answer a question from a child, what words come to your lips when you cross paths with the ugliness and the sorrow that are part of being human. There are sometimes mountaintop moments, of course, but most of the spiritual life takes place right where we are. Because Jesus is right where we are. Which is why we’re going to live Lent right where we are, together, beginning Wednesday. I can’t wait to see what God will do with this.