Exodus 24:12-18 • Psalm 2 or Psalm 99 • 2 Peter 1:16-21 • Matthew 17:1-9
The readings for Sunday, February 23 mark a sea change in the Church Year. We readers find ourselves on a mountaintop – first with Moses, and then with Jesus – in extraordinary circumstances. It is as though the folks who put the lectionary readings together are giving us one last chance to enjoy the contemplative view, before the 40 days of Lent begin.
Many of us, I'm guessing, have had extraordinary experiences of one kind or another: times set apart from the rest of one's life. I have had a few mountaintop experiences – literally mountaintop, for in my younger days I liked to hike. I can remember being up high and the clouds rolling in. I can also remember how helpless it felt, not being able to see anything whatsoever. One literally cannot see enough to move. Running away is not an option – given the chance of falling off a cliff or otherwise hurting yourself. Even the air feels different: moist, cool, thick. At that point, it's a short road from helpless to panicky to fearful.
Here on the emotion-filled road we meet Jesus, who is stopping as his mountaintop moment ends to coach the three disciples with him. Touching them, he is saying "you guys get up and stop being afraid!" Thank goodness for the disciples, working as stand-ins for our all-too human frailties, and adding some humor in an otherwise sublime scene. Picture the three of them, getting scared and literally running into each other, falling down in a heap!
Fear can be funny. Some of the funniest scenes in movies – and life – happen when one person gets scared, the fear spreads across the group, and an unreasonable, hilarious response follows. All of us, attentive to fear, anxiety, panic, worry – call it what you will – can catch fear as it spreads. The opposite, though, is also true. If one person can remain calm, others can find their way back to thoughtfulness. On a mountain, for example, one can know in one's mind that the cloud will pass, sooner or later, reassure oneself, and manage to remain still. One's own example can calm others, as Jesus calmed the disciples. All of us have a similar ability! Human brains have the capacity to toggle back and forth from reason to emotion and back again.
Emotions themselves are not the problem. Fear, for example, has great adaptive value for humans as a species. The problem with unregulated fear is that it steals the present moment from us. In a continued fearful response, much is lost. All that might be seen or understood, all the challenges one might embrace, manage, and lead others through, all the choices available in the moment, all of this disappears. More than that, others – families, friends, or colleagues, - pick up on the worries, and before long, everyone is getting anxious. This can happen not only in the big moments, but in everyday life. So many ordinary but lovely moments go unnoticed, unappreciated, and un-enjoyed as people are distracted by many worries. It is almost as though fear and her many cousins keep us from being completely alive. The good news is that any one of us can stop the cycle by getting up and not being afraid.
Morning: What am I afraid of, or worried or anxious about? How can I remember to toggle between my emotions and my thoughts about them?
Evening: When did I find my anxiety going up today? What sorts of clouds bring it on?