A good friend of mine is often heard to say, “People make better walls than doors,” when someone is blocking the only passage between spaces. It's a habit that we've all watched happen – humans tend to like to stand in doorways or hallways. It's like we're cats, but with the attraction being spaces between places rather than sunbeams.
Transfiguration Sunday is about being between – between the joy that is Epiphany and the sorrow of the onrushing Lent. Thresholds are by their nature both concrete and immaterial. The readings this morning emphasize this balancing act, the presence of liminal spaces within our lives, and show the importance of spaces not entirely of one type or another – crossing points between us and God.
As much as walls, rivers are a boundary, and it takes special conditions to cross. It's one of the miracles of Elijah that he just creates the proper conditions, separating he and Elisha from the fifty prophets who followed them. They could not smack the water with their cloak and have the waters halt and part. It is part of Elijah's holiness and part of his legend, to be like Moses and cause the waters to allow him to walk on dry land through the middle of a river. God creates the space, stopping the water and making the earth to be solid, and Elijah walks*. The two are still walking when God creates a boundary, the famous chariot of fire, that comes between Elijah and Elisha. At this point it is Elijah who exists in liminal space, no longer of the earth, but not yet of heaven, caught up in God's whirlwind of air, and Elisha who cannot cross the wall God has created. It's good biblical storytelling – four verses and mastery of four elements, crowd of witnesses and sole witness. It's also more than that – As I've said before, my God is a god of the spaces between.
The mountain of the gospel is also a space not entirely of one thing or another. High points have long been mediation zones between men and God – before the temple was built in Jerusalem, there were altars on mountains and hilltops all over Israel. And that makes sense. If your concept of heaven, of God, is “up there in the clouds,” the higher you get, the closer you are to God. The stories of Moses and Ten Commandments, Abraham and Issac, etc., just reinforce this particular theme. The Temple itself was built on top of a hill, as Jerusalem was built around it. So Jesus goes up to this liminal space, where feet are on earth, but the rest is in heaven. We know this is heaven because Moses and Elijah show up. Arguably, all three of the prophets on that hill were just those sorts of liminal beings – interfaces between the word and will of God and his people on earth, being born or transformed by the presence of God to be not of either while on earth. They were living thresholds, doors between mundane and divine. With their presence, they reinforced the old theme – the boundary between the seen and unseen, between God and man is thinner in such places. Peter wanted to create structures to mark this liminality, to set aside a space to say “here, this place is sacred, where the wall between God and Man has a way through.”
The purpose of churches, of any sacred space, is to thin those boundaries. There is no difference between a house, a church, or a shack, when it comes to “God is in this place.” However – churches are built to be liminal spaces, a place between the mundane, every day world and God, where the two can meet more easily. Not every church or sacred space has this quality, and none of them have it all the time. Roofs leak, heaters break, people argue, the outside world intrudes into the sacred. But there is a reason such places are “set apart”, not entirely of this world, not truly of another. We need these spaces that make hearing God a little easier. These are Sanctuaries in the old sense, a place of safety where not only the walls between heaven and earth are thinner, but also other walls – those that we've built ourselves, between us and God, between our perceived selves and our real selves. Churches are crossing points, creating doors in impenetrable structures, creating a way forward where there was none, or illuminating the proper path at life's crossroads. And while all these things can happen in places that aren't sacred, because God is everywhere in all things, it's a little bit easier in the space set apart for just that sort of communication with God.
* For me, the note about dry land is just as impressive as 'parts the waters'. It's a river bottom – the mud left behind when the water stopped would make crossing nearly as impossible as if the water still flowed.