Yesterday was the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. The collect and readings for the day may be found here. The appointed gospel was Luke 9:28-43:
28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
37On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” 41Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” 42While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.
43And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
When our boys were young they would often ask, “Is it real?” When they encountered something new or different that is what they wanted to know. Reality for them was something that could be seen, tasted, touched, smelled, and heard. Reality was determined by and limited to the five physical senses. “What you see is what you get” became the standard. If it cannot be seen, tasted, touched, smelled, or heard then it is not real – at least in this world. We tend to live with a veil that separates the exteriorized world of tangible, measurable, rational information from that other world, the inner world of mystery, transformation, and encounter.
There are moments, however, when that veil is parted and we stand in what the Celtic tradition calls a “thin place.” Thin places describe the veil being parted between this world and the other world, between heaven and earth, between the divine and the human, between matter and spirit, between the eternal and the temporal. In the thin place the duality of those parings disappears and we now stand in union, wholeness, and ultimately holiness.
The difficulty for us is that, like my young sons, we often limit our world and our experience to the five senses, to that which is understood, verifiable, and explainable. The five senses themselves in some way become the veil that separates us from that other world. Thin places invite us to step outside the five senses, to step outside what we know, what we can understand and explain. They invite us to be astounded by the greatness of God, to enter the “mysterium tremendum,” the tremendous mystery of God’s presence and love. In the thin places we know ourselves to be overshadowed by the holy.
I remember the night my younger son was born and the nurse placed him in my hands and said that I could carry him to the nursery. I saw his wrinkled skin, I heard his cry, and I felt his weight in my hands. But there was more than I could ever see, hear, or touch. I also entered into the mystery of life and creation in a way never before. I was standing in a thin place. The veil had been parted and I had been forever changed. That encounter was as real as my son’s cry. I remember the afternoon I knelt down with Cyndy’s hands in mine and asked her to marry me. I heard her “yes” and I felt the warmth of her hands but there was more. The veil had been parted and I stood in a thin place where I encountered the mystery of love and union like never before. I will never forget the day we buried our older son. We came home and I was lying on the bed. I could not see him but he was present – a little boy being given a piggyback ride. I could not touch him but I felt the warmth of his life, his weight on my back, and his right knee gouging my ribs as he bounced up and down. The veil between this world and the next had separated. I stood in a thin place encountering the mystery of life, hope, and resurrection. That thin place has changed my life and continues to sustain me.
Thin places do that. They transform our lives. The veil parts and we know ourselves to be different. We and our whole world now stand in a different light. That is what happened to Peter, James, and John. Jesus led them to a thin place, a place where human ears would hear God’s voice, human eyes would see divine light, and human life would be enveloped in the cloud of God’s presence.
That experience is the great longing of humanity. We long to stand in the thin place and step through the veil when it parts. That longing has filled and continues to fill all time and places. It is what has encouraged pilgrims to journey to the holy places. It called our spiritual ancestors to the desert and monasteries. It is why we persevere in prayer and study. That longing causes the disciple to seek a teacher or spiritual director. It is evidenced by the spirituality books that flood the shelves of bookstores. And it is, at least in part, the reason we show up in church week after week. We want to come face to face with what is really real.
That is exactly what happened to Peter, James, and John on the mountain. They came face to face with the Real – the holy. It was not simply an outer experience, one that could be tasted, touched, smelled, seen, or heard. It was rather an experience of inner transformation, one that left them silent. Instead of talking about what they saw and heard they would become that which they encountered. The light they saw in Christ was in them. The veil had parted and they beheld the archetypal beauty of their own creation in the image and likeness of God.
But this is not simply a story about Peter, James, and John. It is descriptive of Christ’s encounter with all humanity. We too are called to the thin places. We too are invited to step through the parted veil. Transfiguration is all around us. Jesus is always leading us to the thin places of our life.
Think for a moment about the thin places of your own life. When was a time the veil parted for you and you knew that you not only stood in the presence of the holy but you experienced your own holiness, your union with God, and your life was forever changed? Maybe it was the first time you held you child or grandchild, or a sunset that revealed more than the movement of a burning star. Perhaps it was forgiveness that opened the possibility for a new life or a time when you knew beyond a doubt that you were loved not because of what you did but simply because you existed. Maybe you sat in the deep silence of God’s presence and knew that all was well. These are the thin places of our life, moments of transfiguration that leave us astounded at the greatness of God.
We do not often talk about our experiences of the thin places. Instead, like Peter, James, and John, we keep silent telling no one of our encounter. It is not because those encounters are not real. It is, rather, because they are too real, too real for words. Words could never describe the experience and would only diminish the mystery and greatness of that encounter. We are now different and can never go back to the way it was before. That moment of transfiguration now resides eternally within us. Instead of talking about, describing, and explaining those experiences we live astounded. Everywhere we go we see, hear, smell, touch, and even taste the greatness of God.