One day in January my husband Peter and I drive to the top of the Sandia Mountains near our home, 10,500 feet close to sky. Albuquerque is a warm 58 degrees Fahrenheit, but 5,000 feet higher the snow is deep in and out of shadows. Our snowshoes leave claw marks on the icy, crusted path where other hikers have walked, but sink in the woods where only squirrels and other light-footed creatures scamper. It is impossible to lose Peter in the firs and spruce trees. His neon yellow snow-pants (reversible to neon pink) shine between straight trunks and thick evergreen boughs. And I can hear his voice singing off-tune, loud, some song of his own creation. He’s often singing me songs he invents on the spot: silly songs, serenades crooning “I’m waltzing in my super silky Ninja suit,” or “I like your sexy biceps.” I love it. I love him.
We climb to the ridge where aspens and spruces twist in convoluted gesture, stunted from strong winds that flood up the crags and rush to drop their load of dampness on the soft, eastern side of the mountains. Sun is about to set; the aspens flicker and flash gold, alive with light. Far below us the Rio Grande catches the last rays and reflects beacons to guide sand-hill cranes home for the night; the silvery ribbon rolls out from one end of the valley to the other.
We turn our faces to the fiery ball resting on the volcanoes above and beyond the river; the volcanoes are ignited daily for just this half hour after hundreds of years of dormancy. Our pink faces, just like the mountains (called sandias, meaning “watermelons”) flush and blush in the low, slanted light. Peter’s kiss warms my wind-chilled cheek. We continue along the ridge, the edge of the cliff to the west, dancing trees and gentle slope to the east.
Soon we stop and lean against a railing to watch the turning, Earth rising slowly, steadily, shadowing more and more of the sun until only a half-circle glows on the horizon, a little less, a sliver of a crescent. I sing an old, familiar hymn:
Day is dying in the west;
Heaven is touching Earth with rest.
Wait and worship while the night
Sets her evening lamps alight
Through all the sky….
We hold each other until the orb is gone—only remnants of color, orange and pink (bright, almost rivaling Peter’s pants) hang formless on the horizon. We turn to hike back in blue twilight. The aspen-candles, lit only moments before, have been snuffed, white skeletons waiting for Ezekiel’s voice next day.
I think of the disciples—Peter, James, and John—with Jesus on the mountain, watching him turn to fire yet not burn, just as Moses watched the God-in-a-bush glow with holy, unquenchable light. Jesus is joined in the inferno by the prophet himself and another well acquainted with fire: Elijah.
The disciples promptly want to build a shrine, a hut for pilgrims to come and honor the sacred place, relive the indescribable experience of seeing Jesus, Son of God, and these saints ablaze. Isn’t that our human impulse, to preserve and uplift what we are in awe of? We build temples, paint murals, write villanelles, compose concertos, trying to convey the ineffable, the sublime. We try, always inadequate efforts, but try nonetheless. And perhaps that is what is most important, even though Jesus admonishes the disciples not to do the very thing they wish. Maybe he’s joking, as he might be when he tells the villagers not to tell of the pigs diving off the cliff. How can they not? The story must be told and re-envisioned time after time through the centuries, in scripture, art, a feast day.
There is something very human, intrinsic to our way of being, that calls us to observance. We remember, return to places, stories, images. We notice and celebrate and invite others into the celebration with us. We must share glory, can’t hoard it for ourselves.
Observance is both passive and active. We pay attention, remember, rehearse, relive. We give beauty and glory our recognition, our time, the honor of being perpetuated through our creations. A sunset doesn’t need me to see it to exist in its splendor. Yet it is my observation and my sharing that makes it palpable, lasting. That moment on the mountain—mine with my Peter and the disciples’ with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah—is no longer just a moment. It has been transfigured into something more than its fleeting, ephemeral occurrence. And we participate in Divine Reality, eternity.
To meet God in the most ordinary of places, scrub brush in the desert, is to experience transfiguration. To be caught up in fire, a chariot pulled by horses whose hooves strike sparks and manes fan embers, that is transfiguration. To see the most human of humans, Jesus the Christ, framed in flame, and know you are witnessing the most real of Real things—that God is with and in us, living out God’s glory—is transfiguration.
Peter’s off-key tunes weaving together delightful and strange things, like belly button lint and lifetime commitment, giving them voice—I think that’s transfiguration too.
Joelle Chase and her husband, Peter, live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.