Our daughter Helen has been attending pre-school this year at the Niskayuna Co-op, which rents space from a local synagogue called Congregation Gates of Heaven. They have a beautiful facility and what seems like quite a lively and active community. Being a religious leader myself, I always enjoy seeing what they have going on there whenever I drop Helen off at school.
This Fall I was fascinated to see the makeshift structure the synagogue had built outside for the festival of Sukkot, a Hebrew word meaning “booths,” “tents,” or “huts,” which commemorates the 40 years that the people of Israel spent wandering in the wilderness after their deliverance from Egypt.
The observance of Sukkot is commanded in the Book of Leviticus which says, “You shall live in booths for seven days; all the native-born in Israel shall live in booths.” Taking this instruction literally, many Jews observe the festival by building a sukkah, or a little booth or hut. It is common for families to eat or even sleep in these little booths during Sukkot. The Congregation Gates of Heaven had made a beautiful and lovingly crafted sukkah which was decorated with the help of the children of the community.
Why am I talking about Sukkot? It is because the events of today’s gospel reading—in which three of Jesus’ disciples witness his glorious transfiguration—likely fall on the final days of the festival. This provides the context for Saint Peter’s rather odd declaration, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” His first reaction is the build sukkahs.
When the people of Israel dwelt in tents in the wilderness, the glory of God followed them and lived among them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The festival of Sukkot recalled those days, but it also looked forward to the age to come, the messianic age, or the Kingdom of God, when the prophets promised that God would dwell with his people again. Of these days Isaiah says, “My people will live in a peaceful country, in secure dwellings and quiet resting places.”
The practice of dwelling in booths or tents at Sukkot reminded God’s people that they were pilgrims in this present age. Their destination is the Promised Land, the Kingdom of God.
What did Saint Peter see that day on the mountaintop? He saw Jesus, the promised messiah, transfigured with the radiance of the glory of God and shining like the sun. He saw Moses and Elijah talking with him. Could you blame him for thinking, this is it! We have arrived! The Kingdom of God is here! Let’s dwell here forever with our Lord in the Presence of God and all the righteous saints!
Suddenly Peter and the other disciples are overwhelmed by the awesome presence of God. They are filled with terror and fall down as if they were dead. They are not yet prepared to inherit the glory of which they have been given a glimpse in the face of Christ. The time of their sojourning has not yet come to end. There is still a journey they must take. The voice of God spoke to them in the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
When Jesus led Peter, James, and John up the mountain, he gave them a glimpse of the glory he intends for them, the end result of their Journey. What we see in Christ’s transfiguration on the mount is our own human nature, glorified, shot through with the eternal light, made a partaker of the divine nature. Our Lord wants to lead us too up the mountain with him, so that like him we can know the depth of union that he enjoys with his father.
To become a disciple of Jesus, to follow him, to listen to him, is to embark on a journey, and to begin a process that when complete will result in our own glorification, and in the transfiguration of our human nature. God intends that we too should shine like the sun with the radiance of his glory!
Peter’s mistake was to believe that there was a fast track to glory. He still didn’t understand that Jesus would have to suffer and die. The path to glory would only come by way of the cross. The road to Easter, to the glory and victory of resurrection, must pass first through the discipline and self-denial of Lent and Holy Week. If we want to share in Jesus’ glory we must first take up our cross and follow him.
The thing about the sukkahs, the tents or booths that people dwell in during Sukkot, is that they are temporary. They are not meant to be a permanent habitation! As we said, the sukkahs or temporary dwelling places were meant to remind God’s people that this world was not their home, but that one day they would dwell in the presence of God in secure and permanent dwelling places where they will at last find their rest.
They are a reminder not to cling to this mortal life and its fleeting pleasures too closely, but to keep our eyes fixed on the glory that is to come.
These fragile bodies that we now inhabit are wasting away and yet Saint Paul writes, “We do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary, troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands”
The disciples on the mount of Transfiguration suddenly catch a glimpse of Jesus in his glory, of the glory he intends for us as well, but just as suddenly the vision is over and he tells them, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
Lent is the time in which we remember the transitory nature of this life. We are reminded that we are dust and to dust we will return. We have not yet been clothed with our permanent dwelling, the body of our resurrection, but get up and do not be afraid. Take up your cross and follow him.