Transfiguration Sunday: Show and (Don’t) Tell

Image: Transfiguration © Jan Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Transfiguration Sunday, Year B:
Mark 9.2-9

One of the greatest challenges in being a writer—or an artist or a preacher, for that matter—is discerning what to reveal and what to conceal. It’s a tricky thing, figuring out how much of our own experience should make its way into our work in an obvious fashion. There’s no well-defined line, though I find that my gut tends to sound the alert when it senses that something I’m reading or viewing or listening to has tilted toward providing Too Much Information.

The TMI syndrome doesn’t simply involve an overabundance of content; sometimes it’s a matter of timing. I read a book some years ago that the author crafted around a profound experience that had taken place not all that long before she began to write about it. I remember wishing she had waited a while. Clearly the act of telling the story was an integral part of how she processed the experience, but it struck me that both she and the story would have benefited from giving herself more time and space before offering that experience to the public. I find myself wondering what the story feels like to her years later, how the experience of sitting with it, pondering it, reading it over time might have honed and deepened her telling of it.

I’ve been thinking about that elusive line between revelation and concealment as I’ve pondered the gospel lection for next Sunday. It seems we’ve only recently tidied up from Christmas and Epiphany, and we’re already approaching Transfiguration Sunday and the threshold of Lent. Next Sunday’s reading beckons us to pause and gather ourselves for a moment in this space between the seasons of Epiphany and Lent, and to give thought to the questions this passage poses. Mark does the transfigurative honors for us this year with his account of this strange journey that Jesus takes with a trio of his disciples.

The transfiguring of Jesus provides a dazzling, dizzying experience for those who have accompanied him up the mountain. One can well understand that Peter, James, and John would desire to find a form for their experience, some kind of container to help them absorb and define what has taken place. We perceive this in Peter’s impulse to construct dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Faced with an event of overwhelming spiritual import, he responds at a physical level: Let me build something.

Peter’s offer is still on his lips when a bright cloud envelops them, a voice from within it speaking words akin to those that came from heaven at the moment of Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The word for what the cloud does is overshadow, from the Greek word episkiazo. We’ve seen this word before. It appears in the angel Gabriel’s conversation with Mary, when he responds to her question about how it will be possible for her to give birth to the child whom he has asked her to bear. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” he tells her, “and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1.35).

In the gospels, the Annunciation is the only occasion besides the Transfiguration that this word appears. The gospel writers’ use of the word draws our attention to the resonance between the story of the Annunciation to Mary and the story of the Transfiguration. Each tale reminds us that we cannot contain or confine God within man-made structures. When God shows up, God often appears in and through people: God goes not for architecture but for anatomy. Or, rather, God makes architecture of our anatomy: God seeks to make of us a dwelling, a habitation for the holy.

This business of being host to the divine is no easy thing, God (literally) knows. So it’s interesting that the soon-to-be-mother Mary and the flat-on-their-faces disciples each receive precisely the same assurance: Do not be afraid. And each goes on their way, carrying something they had not previously known.

In the absence of being able to build physical dwellings, the disciples would have wanted, I suspect, to construct a story about their mountaintop experience: a container of words, at least, that would help them hold and convey what had happened to Jesus and to themselves. Perhaps anticipating this, Jesus enjoins them not to tell what has transpired until after his resurrection. It’s one of the only times that Jesus, a man of action, urges them to wait. This is not for revealing, he tells them; this is for you to carry within you, to ponder, to conceal until the fullness of time.

Perhaps like Mary with the child in her womb.

It was important that Peter, James, and John have that mountaintop experience. It wasn’t important for them to tell the story, not yet; that wasn’t the point of their outing. But the experience would work on them, shape them, and continue to transform and perhaps even transfigure them. The knowledge they carried would alter every future encounter: with Jesus, with their fellow disciples, and with those to whom they ministered.

The story of the Transfiguration calls me to remember that there are times for revealing and times for concealing. There are seasons to tell our story. And there are seasons to hold the story within us so that we can absorb it, reflect on it, and let it (and us) grow into a form that will foster the telling.

As a writer and artist and preacher, I don’t claim to handle that line between revelation and concealment with consistent finesse. But I’ve figured out that one of the core questions in discerning whether to share an experience is this: Whom does the story serve? Does my telling it help you reflect on your life and how God is stirring within it? Or does it merely provide information I think you should know about my own life because I hope it will impress you and induce a response that serves me more than it does you?

How do you discern what and where to share about your life? Whom do your stories serve? Do you have a story of transformation that could help someone else? Is it time to tell it? Is there work that God still needs to do within you so that you can tell the story in the way it needs telling? Whether revealing or concealing, how are you continuing to become a dwelling for the presence of the God who transforms us?

Blessings to you in these threshold days.

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10 Responses to “Transfiguration Sunday: Show and (Don’t) Tell”

  1. Barbara Says:

    A monk who was directing me once remarked that the Transfiguration was my feast day. I have had at least one Transfiguration experience and I think that what you wrote in this post might be what he had in mind, that this signal experience is something I carry with me and transforms me. I rarely speak of it (and won’t here). It is not about me, after all.
    Your post puts a new perspective on the Transfiguration and, for that, I thank you most sincerely.

  2. shelly Says:

    last week i attended a spiritual well being for clergy workshop in AZ
    i shared with the group that I am a recovering alcoholic.. almost 4 years.
    but lately i’ve been questioning when, where and why i share that about myself… is that my identity? am i sharing to help others?
    I decided to try to let go of that unclean spirit and be healed as in seeing myself as God sees me in regards to my past with alcohol.
    i’ll still go to meetings … but every time i meet someone is not an aa mtg

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Thanks so much for your words, Shelly. I can imagine what you described is sometimes a challenging place to be; being in recovery is a huge piece of your journey, and something to acknowledge and celebrate, and at the same time, being in recovery doesn’t describe all of who you are. I rejoice with you in the healing that has taken place in your life, and I share your prayer that you can see yourself as God sees you. That is a powerful prayer indeed.

      Thank you for visiting and for the gift of your words. Blessings on your way.

  3. phyllis Says:

    Another thoughtful piece. I often think about TMI that is passed on to me and wonder if I’m concealing something when I don’t tell all and if it’s okay, or if it is in some way untruthful by not telling all. Your writing gave me new insight about this, Jan and I really appreciate your thoughts AND art. Your questions of discernment are ones I want to remember and use in my own conversations.

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Thank you, Phyllis! Reading your words, I find myself thinking also of your artwork and of how you always seem to know just how much to reveal. Your images embody an elegant balance between revelation and concealment. Thank you for your work and your words!

  4. Kate Says:

    When I was a much younger person, I thought that telling everyone, everything about me was exactly what I was supposed to do to communicate and become close…little did I realize then that most people really were not always interested. Growing up in the sixties and early seventies, people were more friendly about sharing and feeling that sense of brother and sisterhood. However, I found that when I gave too much information, I gave myself away before I had a chance to process who I was or what I had done in my life that was even worth sharing. I am very different now. Not giving so much away at one time or another has made me a listener. A better listener. For that I am grateful. Thank you for your insight! Always a pleasure!

  5. Mary Ann Sinclair Says:

    I am a person who process’ things outloud. TMI in my case is not WHAT I say but WHO I say it to. My life story and struggles may uplift, call out another person or just bogg them down along with myself. I like your idea of reviewing intent.

  6. Shawna Says:

    Hi Jan, I’m glad to have found this post… I was thinking about the need for transparency as I write my sermon. I’ve needed to do some hard work and have struggled towards transparency — to learn to let loose of a thick skin that keeps people out. Your words are a good reminder of the balance and the intention behind becoming transparent. I’m working on an image of Jesus becoming so transparent as to let God shine through which I think is different than a personal transparency. As a new pastor I often struggle with the questions of what and when and how much to reveal. Thank you.

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