Today, in the Christian tradition, is one of the last significant days in the liturgical calendar before Ash Wednesday: Transfiguration Sunday. This day marks the occasion that Jesus transfigured, or metamorphosed, before his disciples – upon summiting the top of a mountain, Jesus’s face and clothes shone with a white light. While emanating this heavenly brilliance, Jesus is seen to speak with the prophets Elijah and Moses, both long since dead, about the upcoming final months of his life. Peter asks whether he and the others should prepare three shelters for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses. But before he finishes, the voice of God declares, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him”. Elijah and Moses disappear.
This story is important for a few reasons. First, it identifies Jesus as the proxy of God on earth – the people’s judge, savior, and direct link with the divine. Second, it previews the resurrection – of Jesus himself, and of all who believe in him. But I love this story for another reason: I love it because of the achingly human motivation behind Peter’s question. He acts as anyone who has experienced something transformative would act: they want to freeze time. Sailing right past the fact that Elijah and Moses are very, very dead, Peter wants to set up camp for them (They’re here now, aren’t they?). He wants to keep them there. This is, of course, impossible. But, God love him for trying.
We take two-dimensional pictures of landscapes, of people, to capture their three-dimensional physicality, and the multi-dimensional feelings we felt upon seeing them. We tattoo our skin to immortalize a meaningful time in our lives. Even though we know, as Peter must have rationally known, it isn’t possible to suspend time and trap a moment, or a person, or a ghost, still we can’t help ourselves from trying. The promise of Jesus is that he will connect us to the eternal. One day, we will be able to relive these moments. One day, we will be able to never be without someone again.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent, which leads to the retelling of the crucifixion narrative, and then onward to glorious, redemptive Easter. I am approaching this season of Lent with more dread than in other years because I know that, this year, I have more of Peter in me than I’ve had before. I lost a very close friend and mentor to cancer last year – my choir director. His death comprehensively hollowed out church and sacred music, and though I have continued singing, nevertheless, that hole is still there. And so, half of me expects his resurrection at Easter. It’s a bafflingly irrational feeling but I can’t help myself from envisioning him conducting the timpani and brass quartet ornamenting “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” as we all process in, and completely accepting that he’s there. “Oh, hey – Ben’s not dead!” would be as easy to say as “Oh, hey – Ben made it back from vacation in time for the service!” The other half of me – the sane half – knows that Easter will bring back so many happy memories, now bittersweet, that it will feel like Ben is, in fact, there in spirit. I will want to freeze that feeling.
That, of course, will be impossible. But, God will love me for trying.
Tavener’s piece comes from the Liturgy for Great and Holy Saturday: “As one who has slept, the Lord has risen; and rising, he has saved us. Alleluia.”