It was a cold February afternoon – a Super Bowl Sunday, to be exact - just a few months after the priest had presided at the wedding of a wonderful young couple. The ceremony had been full of the formal words of commitment, with beautiful music to complement the words that were spoken. The bride had been radiant in a dress that must have cost more than the priest’s car did. The reception, at a nearby vineyard, had been luxurious, the finest hospitality that a whole lot of money can buy.
It had been a magnificent celebration of love. A pricey celebration of love, to be sure, but hey, if you’re in love and the parents can afford it, why not? Everyone thought it was a great beginning for a couple who were deeply in love with each other.
And now, only four months later, the bride was sitting in the wing chair in the priest’s office, crying her eyes out. “I thought married life would be the happily ever after! I thought he’d keep on courting me! I feel taken for granted! He expects me to do all this stuff, and he never says thank you! Nobody told me that marriage would be like this, so boring, so much WORK!”
The priest thought, “well, yes, we did talk about this in the premarital counseling, but mentioning that would probably not be helpful right now.”
Instead, they talked about the work after a big party, when you have to clear the tables and load the dishwasher and figure out how to fit the leftovers into the refrigerator. Parties only last so long. They end, and then the work begins.
In our gospel, we hear the story of an incredible party. It’s an intimate one, to be sure: just Jesus, a few disciples, a couple of surprise guests. And a surprising change in the host: Jesus glows like a June bride with an extreme makeover, complete with airbrushed makeup. It’s got another special effect: the cloud machine is on, enveloping them all in a holy fog. And there’s not just the cloud machine, there’s that Darth Vader voice, the voice of God saying Jesus is the Chosen One. The wow factor at this party is over the top. Peter wants to gussy things up with some tents, implying that they might want the party to continue on with the group staying up on the mountain in party land forever, but Jesus keeps it simple and short. And then, suddenly, like all good parties, it’s over. They may have wanted it to last, but always leave them wanting more, right? Jesus is back to being Jesus, the surprise guests are gone, the loud voice is gone, and they have to climb all the way back down the mountain. Good thing Peter didn't put up those tents!
No, now there is no more magic land with fog and mysterious voices and appearances by great prophets of ancient days.
So they slog down the mountain, this rabbi and his fisherman followers. My guess is that Peter and John and James were much more comfortable on flat land, hard by the sea they fished, than they were in the rocky crags of the mountain of transfiguration, so I can picture them slipping and sliding and scraping their hands maneuvering down the slope. Jesus could handle it because, well, he was Jesus, but those fishermen, the aftermath of the big party on the top of the mountain was not pleasant, it was hard work. They were emotionally and physically exhausted by what they had experienced.
And as if to reinforce that idea, the very next thing that happened was not a little rest and recovery after the big party, but a huge crowd and the cry of a man who begged for Jesus to heal his possessed son. And Jesus, sounding like he really needed a rest, muttered a brief word of complaint that his teachings were not really being taken seriously: “you guys! You only come over to me when you want something. When I tell you what to do you don’t pay attention…but never mind. Bring me the boy.”
And he healed him.
After the party, there’s not endless party, there’s work to be done. Not for radiant brides, not for transfigured Jesus, and most certainly not for disciples.
For me, the story gives me exactly what I need to remember about the week ahead of us.
This evening, you may be going to a SuperBowl party. You may be hosting one. There may be a Mardi Gras party, a Shrove Tuesday pancake supper, a last night on the town…
…because we need that to prepare for the fact that on Wednesday, we are reminded of the work of discipleship as we begin the walk to the Cross with Jesus Christ. On Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, we enter the season of Lent, and make no mistake, Lent is work.
I used to think that Lent was about giving up chocolate. I thought it was about a season without the word “Alleluia,” a dark season.
But it’s not dark. It is simply a time of focused work after the party of seeing the glow of Jesus Christ, the shine on the face of Moses. You can’t look into the lightbulb indefinitely. You have to come down from the mountain after the party, and there’s work to be done.
We become disciples of Christ not when we see the glowy shiny face of the Divine One on top of a mountain. We become disciples of Christ when we are filled with the recognition that Christ bids us to do His work on earth. We become disciples of Christ when we look and look hard at ourselves and reflect on the ways we have been lazy about serving others, or deluded about our own importance, or whiny about our needs being met when others’ needs are so much greater.
The work of the season we approach this week is reflection, recognition and recommitment. We reflect on who we are and how we live into God’s expectations of us. We recognize the ways we have been on the right path, and the ways we have failed. We recommit to serving God, glorifying God by living as God would have us live, caring for those around us, even the most unlovable. And why do we do that?
Precisely because we have seen his glory on the mountaintop. We have seen the possibilities in creation and in each other, and that glow, that shine tells us there is something more that we can do, to co-create a better world, to bring God’s reign to this corner of the earth. We recommit because we now understand that the possibilities are infinite because God’s love for us is infinite.
So we may need to climb back down from the party mountain to something that feels more quotidian, more like work, a little bit boring, a whole lot uncomfortable. Looking at ourselves is often uncomfortable. But that’s the work of this season, and again, I won’t pretend it isn’t work.
But we have the glow to warm our hearts, to comfort us in the midst of the work. We have the love of the one who created us, who continually calls us back into a more perfect relationship, who shows us we and the world can be better. We have the possibility of transfiguration of our world even as we await the resurrection of Christ at Easter. We can do this thing!
That February afternoon, the priest said to the bride, “Do you still love him?”
“Of course I do!”
“Does he still love you? Do you doubt his love?”
“No, I know he loves me. I just miss the romance.”
“Does he do things for you?”
She sniffed, “Sometimes.”
“Do you do things for him?”
“Well, yes, of course…sometimes.”
“Can you do the work and look for the wonderful silly moments of romance even in the midst of that work?”
“I’m not sure what you’re getting at.”
“Well, I’m not in your marriage, so I’m going to have to guess here, but has there ever been a time when the two of you were doing work around the house and something silly happened and you were laughing about it together, and you felt so warm and close in that moment? In my house, it’s usually when the cat throws up and we’re both avoiding cleaning it up...I kid you not!”
She laughed. “He chased me around the house with the vacuum the other day.”
“And what happened when he caught you?”
The conversation ended shortly after that. She was starting to realize that parties are short, and life is long. There is always work. But even in the work, there is the warmth and joy of possibilities in ourselves, in our church, in our world.
Let this Ash Wednesday mark the beginning of the work of reflection, recognition and recommitment, to remind ourselves of our possibilities and God’s possibilities, so we can respond to the glory and love of God with open hearts.