I’ve always struggled with the Mount of Transfiguration, partially because I’ve grown up in a tradition that never spent much time with it, and that liturgical traditions intentionally come to this moment in their yearly cycle is a curious thing to me. Because of that, I’ve also struggled when I come across the Transfiguration as a topic of preaching in the lectionary. This has been a welcome struggle, to be sure, but there has always been a tinge of trepidation when it comes up again in the liturgical rhythm of the church.
This year, however, I had the happy coincidence of pondering the text in Luke 9 while also listing the a string of podcasts from Renovare about the spiritual discipline of simplicity. Those two trains of thought began at separate points, removed from one another, but at some point they converged. The Mount of Transfiguration was, in part, about simplicity.
It’s easy to think about simplicity in terms of what we have and, perhaps, what we’ve given up. We equate simplicity with the notion of limiting ourselves in some form or another. But, more than a set of rules or prescribed practices, simplicity is foremost about adopting a disposition. Simplicity is when we learn to focus so intently on God that the static along the periphery begins to fade away. It’s not so much about what you give up, or how you limit yourself, as it is who you place your focus on.
To be sure, this can have the effect of clearing out a lot of the mundane, day to day clutter from our lives. I’ve recently taken a semi-permanent break from the major social media platforms, not because I didn’t like a lot about browsing Facebook or Instagram, but because they proved a distraction from some of the more important things God drew me to as I continued to focus on him more intently. It was not an intentional move toward simplicity, but it has the effect of bringing simplicity to my life: fewer minutes and hours spent browsing, fewer ultimately silly things to be frustrated about, more time with my wife and kids, more time to read and do the things that enrich my life … more sleep. As we commit to an intent focus on God, we will find simplicity working its way into our lives in a variety of ways.
But, simplicity does not only affect us in relatively small ways, but in big ways as well. This, for me, is where the disciplines and the Mount of Transfiguration converge. When his disciples find Jesus talking to Elijah and Moses, there’s a lot of loaded things going on. First, just before they came to the mountain, Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Messiah. As much as anything, this was a political declaration, a confession that Jesus came with a vision for how the world should work, how it should move forward. In that text, Jesus was the Messiah in contrast with Elijah or “one of the ancient prophets” (that would include Moses).
Second, Elijah and Moses were more than mere historical figures in the minds of Second Temple Judaism. Rather, they were symbols often take up by various groups with their own agendas about how things should go and what God was like. The Pharisees, for example, were all about doubling down on Moses. They believed if they could keep the Law well enough, God would reward their righteousness and purity by kicking off his campaign to defeat the Romans. On the other hand, the Zealots longed to have the zeal Elijah demonstrated in beheading hundreds of Ba’al’s prophets. They promoted a bloody, violent way forward in which God would join them in the blood shed.
But, the voice from the cloud looked at Moses and Elijah and said of Jesus, “Listen to him.” Focus on him. Let the rest fall away. Simplicity.