A story in which Jesus and three friends go for a hike.
The three friends are John and James and Peter. They are Jesus’ closest friends, hold oldest friends. Or at least they are his first friends since he was changed, since he came out of the Jordan’s waters and heard the voice, the voice that said to him and of him:
This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him!
The four of them have been on the move ever since. Walking from place to place as Jesus tells stories and feeds people and heals people and casts out demons. Walking as others have joined them.
Today, they stand at the bottom of a mountain. And Jesus says:
Today, our walk is going to take us up.
And so they go. They start walking. This is how things are with Jesus. He does things right now and if you want in on the adventure you drop your nets – be your nets metaphorical or, in the case of these three, be they very wet and very real – and you go too.
Notwithstanding all of the walking that they have done, notwithstanding the great advantage that is being young, this hike is difficult. They climb up and up, breathing hard, the world getting more quiet around them as civilization recedes and, simultaneously, the world gets bigger around them: they can see more and farther with every step that they take up.
Maybe they have brought water with them and they stop from time to time to drink it, letting their speeding hearts slow for a moment or two, looking back down the mountain and out at the immensity of the horizon. Maybe as they drink they talk – about everything that happened to bring them to the mountain, about what its summit might be like and how far it might be still.
Or maybe they say little or nothing. Maybe this is a moment for which there are not words, in which any effort at small talk feels, well, too small on the immensity of the mountain. And so the friends get only a few words in before they decide to choose silence once more.
Those maybes done, the friends resume climbing. Up. Up. Up. Up past the tree line, the place where the vegetation stops and the rock and the wind begins. Up into the brightness of the sun, a sun that, even as it leaves you squinting, does not take your cold away.
Eventually, they make it to the summit. And there the four of them stand, panting and looking around in wonder.
They are alone, the four friends.
Centuries after this moment, an anthropologist will appear in a documentary in which he will explain that, for our ancestors, for people like James and John and Peter and Jesus and billions of others, the world was malleable and permeable. Malleable meaning that categories were not as rigid as maybe we think of them as being today. To look at a drawings an ancient cave is to discover images in which someone is both a human being and, say, ox. It was possible to be both at once. This both/andness was something that people understood and accepted as normal. Our ancestors had a way of being that, perhaps, we are rediscovering a little today when we speak of being fluid or non-binary. Our ancestors lived in a non-binary or fluid or malleable world.
Permeable probably has a complicated dictionary definition, but I’m going to give it a simple one: it means that God isn’t somewhere else, that heaven isn’t somewhere else. To live in a permeable world is to trip over miracles all the time. It is to go into your kitchen to make coffee and to encounter something shining with divinity as you do so. In a permeable world, a friend will tell you that they encountered a bush that was on fire but was not consumed and you will neither assume that they are nuts nor that they are speaking metaphorically. In a permeable world, someone will walk on the surface of a lake, will make a finite amount of food into an infinite amount of food, Jesus will die and yet will talk with you and eat with you.
(These things still happen, by the way. One of the privileges of doing this work is that people tell me things. And lots of folks to this day still have profound visions, have profound God sightings. It’s just that we’ve lost the vocabulary for talking about these experiences and we are justifiably afraid that if we share them out loud people will think that we are loopy or, maybe worse still, will dismiss our most holy encounters as trivialities, as stuff that we plain-old made up.)
They are alone, the four friends. Alone on a mountaintop in a malleable and a permeable world.
And Jesus, whom doctrine says is fully human and fully divine, suddenly embodies this malleability, this both/andness before John, James, and Peter. He stands before the three friends, still the person whom they know, but shining so bright that they can barely look at him. He has become an explosion, become the sun – not s-o-n but s-u-n. The three friends look at him through their fingers, squinting. And they notice this incredibly folksy thing. They notice that no one, no matter how good they are at bleaching, could make Jesus’ clothes dazzle the way that his clothes are dazzling right now.
And the permeability comes at the same time. Elijah and Moses, those ancient prophets, gone into heaven centuries ago, are there and talking with Jesus.
Can the three friends hear any of their conversation?
Peter feels like he has to say something, like he has do something to mark this moment. And so he blurts out:
I’ll build you houses! We can stay here forever!
He does not know what to say, for the three of them are terrified.
They may live in a malleable and a permeable world, but that doesn’t make this moment into no big deal. You and I live in a world in which thunder and lightning exist. And to see a lightning bolt land on the ground before you is still to have something big and primal get touched within your soul.
But the terror, the wonder, is not over. A cloud shows up. And in a moment of fearful symmetry, the voice that comes from it utters the very words same words from the Jordan:
This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him!
And then the voice is gone. And Moses and Elijah are gone. And Jesus shines no more. Or no, that’s wrong. The three friends are able to look at Jesus again. And they realise that Jesus always shone. They just never saw it clearly before.
And that’s almost the end of the story. Except that there is this epilogue. The four of them go back down the mountain and, as they do, Jesus says:
Don’t tell anyone about this, okay?
Scholars have spilled a lot of ink over this. What does it mean, that Jesus wants this moment to be a secret? Maybe it has a really complicated explanation. But maybe it isn’t complicated at all. I wonder if seeing Jesus transfigured, seeing Jesus shine, isn’t something that you can be told about and understand. In order to understand, in order to integrate the shine of Jesus into your own life, you have to climb the mountain and see for yourself.