On a quiet October afternoon, a couple sits on the end of a pier as the sun slips down below the horizon. Their children are spending the weekend with grandparents, and the time they have alone together is precious. Although not far from home, they feel as if they are on vacation in a distant land. Holding hands, they sit silently and share a moment of intimacy that neither has felt in a long time. “I wish we could stay here forever,” one of them says to the other, knowing that the magic will soon end.
There are moments that we wish would last forever. Part of that desire is based on the joy that they bring—experiences that we would gladly return to over and over. And another part of that desire is based on the fact that moments like those are beyond our control. If I could simply flip a switch and recreate the magic of a romantic sunset, I would not need for it to last forever. Part of our yearning to stay in that passing moment is a recognition that we do not know when a similar opportunity will come again and that, no matter how carefully we might try, we cannot orchestrate such an experience of deep joy.
You might not think of church as a place where those kinds of moments happen, but I experience them during worship all the time. Sometimes a hymn that everyone loves reverberates within the walls with exceptional energy. Occasionally familiar words prayed at the altar seem to reflect the enormity of God’s love in a particularly palpable way. Every once in a while a child giggles at just the right moment, sending ripples of joyful laughter throughout the congregation. We attribute moments like those to the work of the Holy Spirit because we know that something beyond ourselves is taking place. And, as much as I wish that simply picking the right hymn or saying the Eucharistic Prayer with the right inflection could reproduce those moments of holy amazement, I recognize that none of us can make them happen.
As Luke tells us, eight days after Jesus had predicted his upcoming death and resurrection, he went with Peter, James, and John up on a mountain to pray. While he was praying, Jesus’ countenance was transfigured before them, and he began to shine with dazzling white light. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appeared next to Jesus, talking with him. As the moment began to fade, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” The gospel-writer lets us know that Peter had not thought about what he was saying and instead was instinctively trying to capture the wonder of a fleeting moment.
Last night, a colleague and I were speaking about the nature of worship and how this past Sunday gave us glimpses of the Spirit’s transcendent work among us. I began to say something about wanting to hold on to those experiences and stretch them out in order to make them last, but then she smiled and reminded me about the Transfiguration, as if my own words were those of Peter—instinctive and obtuse. As the gospel reminds us, we are not meant to stay put in those moments. They are meant to come upon us in ways that defy our ability to manufacture or plan for them and then scoot away, leaving us breathless and amazed. Then, we are supposed to travel on with their memory tumbling around joyfully in our minds.
When was the last time that you wished that a moment would stretch on forever? The feeling itself is not wrong, but getting lost or stuck in that place can be. When I come upon one of those moments of rare bliss, I feel that I am supposed to appreciate them for what they are—gifts from God. But to imagine that they are all that life is supposed to be would miss the point. God gives us those glimpses of joy to propel us off the mountain top and back into the world. Those exceptional moments are what keep us going down the bumpy road ahead and bring us back to the mountain top in due time. Perhaps the consummation of God’s kingdom will be one everlasting moment of joy similar to the fleeting experiences of this life, but, until we welcome that kingdom in its fullness, the moments in which it breaks through into this world should not be destinations in themselves but signposts that point us to that greater reality.