Thin Places and Transfiguration
Because I am preaching this coming Sunday, February 11, I’ve been mulling over the lectionary texts. This will be “Transfiguration Sunday,” marking the conclusion of the Advent – Christmas – Epiphany cycle and our turn into the Lent – Holy Week – Easter one.
For Transfiguration Sunday, the gospel text is always one of the accounts of Jesus on a mountain transfigured with a radiance that has neither earthy source nor explanation. Before we descend into the valley of the shadow that is Lent, there is this one further moment of luminosity, like a lightning strike which sharply and for an instant illuminates the path ahead.
And that path ahead is confusing — especially this year. Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day fall on the same day next week, February 14. This poses a dilemma: to give chocolate or to give up chocolate. Sorry, enough nonsense, back to the main thread.
The three lessons for this coming Sunday all have this in common: they are accounts of what the Irish call “thin places.” Places where, in Barbara Brown Taylor’s words, “the veil between this world and the next is so sheer that it is easy to step through.” It’s C. S. Lewis’s wardrobe into Narnia or the haunting Four Corners landscape of the Southwest.
In the first text for this Sunday, II Kings 2: 1 – 12 we find a determined Elisha dogging every footstep of his prophetic master, Elijah. Elijah is soon — “and very soon” (in the language of the spiritual) — to depart this life. Elisha doesn’t want to miss the moment.
Dying and death are truly one of life’s “thin places.” Things change then. Perception is altered. I have written elsewhere of my time with my younger sister, Regan, when she was dying almost four years ago now. There was, paradoxically, a glow on her face in those last weeks — or it least it appeared that way to me. But more, all else was changed, strangely transfigured by death’s certain approach.
In the Epistle lesson from II Corinthians Paul defends his apostolic authority in the face of criticism from the Corinthians. What he says is basically, “With me, what you see is what you get.” No games, no hype, just straight gospel. This in contrast to those other more popular preachers he describes, sarcastically, as “super-apostles.” They boast of their great spiritual experiences and attainments to lend themselves authority. Paul’s is a very different kind of “thin space,” that of a transparent life, open for all to see. No cover-up or pretense.
The Gospel Lesson offers yet another kind of thin place, a mountaintop. Jesus took his disciples, three of them, “up a high mountain.” Mountain tops are literal thin places for there the oxygen content of the air is diminished. But there’s more to it than that. I remember an experience hiking the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier. For days the mountain was shrouded in cloud and fog. Then one day the clouds suddenly lifted and there, RIGHT THERE, was this enormous mountain, vast and intimidating. I felt as if I were a flea on an elephant, but until that moment I hadn’t known about the elephant. It was a very thin place.
In many ways the project of modernity has been to de-mystify and dis-enchant the natural world. Irish “thin spaces” had as much credibility as leprechauns. But somehow our sense that such places — places and experiences where the veil between this world and another is sheer — persists. Perhaps because it is true. There is another dimension, another reality.