The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Last Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A)
February 26, 2017
I don’t know about you, but for me, this week has been such a welcome relief from the cold of winter. And I am plenty glad to see the snow cover go. We never had a snow cover in the South when I was a child, so it’s something that’s taken some getting used to—and I’m not opposed to it—I quite like it some winters—but this year I was glad to see it go. Even though we know more cold is in store, things are beginning to bud here, bulbs poking up through the ground—evidence that spring may indeed be around the corner.
When I was a child growing up in middle Georgia, we had a large backyard with lots of grass and shrubbery and trees—plenty of space to run and play as young children—and in the winter the grass would go dormant but never quite die. So come springtime it would green up and start to grow, just as the daffodils and crocuses came out, followed by azaleas and camellias as spring turned to summer.
As the days grew longer there in our back yard, we’d come inside for supper but then go back out to play. And one of the magical things that I looked forward to in those twighlight spring evenings, when the air was humid but not yet hot, the light just fading away but not quite gone, was the emergence of fireflies. Up out of the lawn, out of the shrubbery, just as the light was fading to a deep purple, just before the stars came out, just as it was almost impossible to see, these points of fluorescence, these little points of yellow-green light, would begin to rise up into the night sky.
Five, ten, twenty, fifty of them, all in the space of a few moments—and the night sky was transformed by these little points of light, all moving in a dance, just out of reach, a magical moment just there on the cusp of night.
This light, the dance of the fireflies, was mesmerizing, and as a child I wanted to stay right there and keep watching. But I knew from observation that, as night fell, the fireflies would fade away, too. I still don’t know what happened to them or where they’d go, but my recollection is that they’d signal just at twilight. I’ve read that fireflies use this luminescence to attract one another, to meet a mate, to propagate the firefly species—that all of this magical dance is just an elaborate flirtation for the firefly. But all of that was out of my comprehension as a child—and all I noticed was the light—seemingly out of nowhere, floating, dancing, hanging there in the darkening sky.
That moment was so exciting that I never wanted it to go away. That all was right with the world—and that time was standing still. Maybe, in some small way, the wonder I felt was something like that which Peter feels in the gospel reading today. Peter sees that strange, wonderful light of the transfiguration—he sees Jesus, shining in dazzling light—his face, his clothes, everything radiant. And he wants to hold onto that moment. And he says to Jesus, Lord, this is just great! Let’s stay right here! I’ll build houses for you all, for you, for Moses, and for Elijah! Let’s just stay here in the beauty and safety of this moment!
It’s easy to make fun of Peter in this moment. Oh, silly Peter, you just don’t get it. You want to build a bunch of huts, contain the wonder, institutionalize it, just stay up on that mountain. But I get it. I get that Peter wants to stay right there. Right on that mountain, in the brilliance of that light, just right there with Jesus, with Elijah, with Moses. He knows that’s a good place to be. Just like I knew that the twilight punctuated by those fireflies, the light of their tails, was a special and holy place—a time I wanted to hold onto.
I don’t know if fireflies exist up here. I don’t see them in the garden here. But if they do, if you’re familiar with them, you’ll know that a thing that happens is that kids catch them and put them in jars—often quart mason jars, because, of course, at the beginning of spring, before the harvest season, you’ve got lots of those empty and lying around, and it’s glass, so you can see through it. So you poke some holes in the lid of the mason jar, and you catch the fireflies—maybe with a net, or maybe with your hands, very carefully so you don’t hurt their wings, and you drop them in the jar and seal it up, with those holes so they can breathe of course-maybe even with a stick or some grass so they have something that resembles their native habitat—and you’ve made a firefly lantern.
That firefly lantern is beautiful for about thirty minutes, just as long as the fireflies keep signaling to one another, as their lights keep burning. But after nightfall, after they’ve figured out that they’re in a small space, that there are no other fireflies to signal to, their lights begin to dim. The fireflies go dark. And, as you can imagine, if you don’t let them out, they’ll die in the jar. The attempt to hold onto that light, to keep everything the same, fails. The fireflies die. And the mystery is gone.
It’s hard to blame Peter, wanting to hold onto the light. For when Jesus takes the disciples back off the mountain, the first thing they encounter is the brokenness of the world. As they come down the mountain, they come across a boy who needs healing. He has epilepsy and falls into fire, into water, hurting himself when he has these episodes. And the disciples cannot heal him—but Jesus can.
I don’t know about you, but every day I am confronted with things that I can’t heal. Painfully aware of things that are wrong that I cannot fix, solve, or put right. Injustices that are out of my control. Pain that seems too great to bear. Addiction that seemingly has no end in sight. Racism that persists even in the face of our cries for justice. Chronic homelessness, sometimes exacerbated by mental illness or addiction, that seems to have no solution, despite our best efforts. It’s enough to make me want to stay right here, to lock the doors and gates even, and not to leave this altar, this place where we find Jesus so present in the sacraments, the Word of God incarnate, present, with us. Going out into the places where there’s so much pain, so much anxiety, can feel overwhelming, too much.
And yet that’s where Jesus calls us. Not to bottle up the light, to hold onto it, but to carry it out and unleash it in the world.
Even while Peter is still calling for them to stay right there in the beauty of Jesus’s transfigured light, “suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. “ (17.5-8)
Jesus comes over to touch them, to reassure them of his presence—to cast out fear. And then he asks them to get up, and they go back down the mountain together.
“Get up and do not be afraid.”
Bottling up the light, holding onto it, makes no sense. It’s even counterproductive, because it’s made for the whole world. Jesus invites us to get up, without fear, and bear that light out into the streets of our city, our homes, even the dark places in our lives, confident in his transforming, transfiguring presence. It is God who will bring the change, it is Christ who brings healing, if we but bear the light.
Peter’s instinct is understandable, but ultimately it’s not where Jesus is going. Back down the mountain he calls them—to live without fear in the world they encounter, sustained by the radiant presence of Jesus. Sharing that light with the world.
That doesn’t mean that Peter’s instincts are all bad, though, does it? For we cannot bear the light of Christ until we know it for ourselves. That’s why each and every week we come back to this altar and receive the presence of Christ in the Sacrament. That’s why we pray. That’s why we meet in community, not as individuals, but as the body of Christ—to remember again whose work this is—and who goes with us down the mountain. We come together to experience again the presence of Christ in our lives, to hear those words, “Get up and do not be afraid,” and we go out into the streets to bear the light of Christ again.
I invite you in this Eucharist to receive again the presence of Christ, to hear his words, “Get up and do not be afraid.” I invite you to revel in the light of his transfigured presence. And, as we enter Lent together, I invite you to really look at the things that keep you from being aware of the fullness of Christ’s presence in your life. What’s blocking the light for you? Or what’s keeping the lid on the jar? Lent is our time to examine the things that separate us from God and to make some changes.
So as we enter Lent, let’s stay on the mountain a little longer, stay in that light, and really pray about what it looks like to go back down the mountain. To live without fear. To shine that light of Christ all over the world.
Get up, and do not be afraid. Let the light of Christ shine in your heart—this Lent and always.