Little deaths

Stepping through? (photo by Martin Malina, Arnprior Grove 12 Feb 2023)

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me…”[1]

9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”[2]

Today we stand on the mountaintop with Jesus and his disciples. We scan the horizon and see other mountains in the distance. There, on another mountain far away, lies our destination. And we realize that the journey to get there will be long and hard.

It begins the moment we step off this mountain. It begins as all holy journeys do, by a path of descent.

We begin Lent in a few days. Lent is the season of ‘descending’ because it is not easy going down the mountain. It’s harder on your body going down than it is going up. And Lent traditionally is the season of learning the faith. But the journey we take necessarily involves an unlearning of sorts, before the real learning takes place. It’s a bit of a paradox: That in order to find life, you first have to deconstruct something that has been entrenched, lose it. Jesus himself says, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”[3]

Physical death is the ultimate low point in that paradox. But throughout our earthly lives, we experience ‘little deaths’ – losses, changes, ego-humbling events. Life is ‘done unto us’ through suffering that invites us to unlearn something we’ve held on to deeply for a long time. In those deaths, we are invited to respond and move towards new life. Because the low point is also the turning point, when the path begins to ascend.

But we’re not there yet! Today we stand on the mountaintop. Before Lent starts, before the journey through the valley of the shadow of death begins, the disciples experience glory on the mount of transfiguration. They see Jesus in a way no other human beings have. This is the stuff of legend. You’d think they should run down that mountain and shout what they have witnessed from the roof tops!

But Jesus calls them not to tell anyone just yet. He tells them not to respond impulsively, according to their human inclination. Jesus is asking them to hold themselves back, keep it to themselves, not to tell your friends, not to publicize the spectacle of glory they had just witnessed.

We’ve devised all sorts of interpretations around this strange instruction: The time was not right, Jesus still had to accomplish a few more things before letting the cat out of the bag, so to speak. For Lutherans, it’s the cross. Jesus had not yet made that final journey to death, and resurrection.

But have we given enough thought to what effect this instruction had on the disciples themselves in that moment. The disciples, like all human beings, are not robots. We can’t just blindly obey without feeling anything. Faith and discipleship are not a switch we turn off and on heartlessly, coldly. It would have been painful to obey this instruction to keep a lid on it. You experience something great and wonderful, and you want to tell everyone about it! Right away!

What would a child do in a playroom with all sorts of intriguing, colorful toys and things to do? And you tell them: You can play with all the toys in this room for however long you want to play with them. But, there is one thing you are not allowed to do: You cannot for any reason look behind that small cupboard door. Well, what do you think that child will do when the adult is not looking?

A child might be a slave to compulsion. But maturing people of faith who have gone through many a valley and who are practised at letting go will grow from that childish way. Maybe never fully, but that is the trajectory of growth. We will learn to manage those impulses, however imperfectly. And we will obey, not blindly and not just because “I was told”. We will obey because we trust the promise and the experience that something good and healthy comes out of not always caving into compulsion.

That is the journey of Lent, of learning. Of first doing without in order to receive the better. First comes the path of descent, the letting go. But truly let go. Then the wilderness of the in-between time, the valley. Then, finally, the blessing, the resurrection, the promise fulfilled.

There are stories from the bible we normally read during the season after Epiphany which concludes today. But this year, because we are in a different lectionary year, we did not hear the story of Jesus turning water into wine at Cana during a wedding.[4] So I’d like to briefly comment on this today before we launch down the mountain into Lent.

At the end of this story, the Gospel writer concludes that “in Cana of Galilee [Jesus] revealed his glory.” And I suspect most of us interpret ‘glory’ here to mean that something spectacular and miraculous happened. Yes, it did. I’m not denying the miracle of changing water into wine. But before we run away with some theology of glory removed from the reality of life, we need to recall the context of the telling of this story—the reason Jesus stepped in, in the first place.

“When the wine gave out” and “They had no wine”, the wedding party had a problem. They were left bereft, lacking something they had considered essential to their party. They faced the abyss of panic and desperation of loss. What will they do now that they had none? That’s when Jesus acts.

Before we can talk about the glory of God, we need to understand that the promise fulfilled, the blessing given, the grace of God comes only after the loss, the letting go, admitting the mistake, embracing the suffering of doing without. 

The limitation and ‘little death’ happen first. The Winter comes before the Spring. The dark night of the soul yields the beauty and grace of dawn. You can’t talk about God’s glory without also mentioning in the same breath what was lost. You can’t find unless you lose. God’s glory is revealed in human weakness[5], emphasis on ‘in’.

There is no bypass on this journey. We are not superman who can jump from one mountaintop to the next. You see what I’m getting at? The glory of God only makes sense in the light of the Cross of Christ. 

“Jesus is a person and, at the same time, a process. Jesus is the Son of God, but at the same time he is the way. Jesus is the goal, but he’s also the means, and the means is always the way of the cross …. The cross is the pattern of life and a path for our own liberation.”[6]

This is the journey of Lent ahead. We stand on precipice now, looking down into the valley, seeing the winding road we must travel to get to the next hilltop. The journey is long and arduous. But Christ goes with us. We won’t get lost because the One who goes with us knows the way. And he will help us.

[1] Psalm 23, KJV

[2] Gospel reading for the Transfiguration of our Lord, Year A, RCL; Matthew 17:9

[3] Matthew 10:39

[4] John 2:1-11

[5] 1 Corinthians 1:17-31

[6] Richard Rohr, “Following Jesus’ Way” The Way of Jesus (Daily Meditations,, 19 Feb 2023).

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