TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, mighty and immortal, you are beyond our knowing, yet we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ. Transform us into the likeness of your Son, who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Just about the time I think I have Jesus figured out, I discover I don’t. That, more than anything else, gives me hope that I am still Jesus’ disciple. Anyone who thinks s/he has Jesus figured out surely has stopped listening to him. Everyone who pays attention to Jesus understands that the more you get to know Jesus, the more you realize you have to learn. Our gospel lesson for Transfiguration reminds us emphatically that God would have us listen to Jesus, because that is the only way we are ever going to know anything about God, about ourselves, where we are in the grand scheme of things and wither we are going.
Listening to Jesus is a lifelong assignment quite different from learning the rudimentary doctrines of the Christian Faith. Catechetical instruction does not end with our mastering a finite collection of doctrines, teachings and traditions. Though important, doctrine, theology and faith practices merely give us the language we need to grow into our living relationship with the Crucified and Resurrected Lord. They equip us with the language, images and conceptual tools we need to hear the voice of Jesus.
Jesus came to deconstruct all our humanly pre-conceived notions about God. As Mark Twain once remarked, “It ain’t what people don’t know that’s so dangerous; it’s what they do know that ain’t so.” There is plenty said by preachers, politicians and pundits these days about who God is, what God wants and how God acts that isn’t so. I don’t have to name any names to make the point that what people are led to believe about God can lead to monstrous images of God. For the sake of gods masquerading as the God of the Bible we have conducted holy wars, executed people for witchcraft, practiced racial segregation, murdered and socially ostracized sexual minorities, subjugated women and abused children.
It is all too easy, I think, for those of us in the mainline protestant traditions, who claim to have moved beyond some of the more blatant manifestations of these sins, to point the finger at the likes of Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr. who are still breathing words of hate and intolerance in the name of God. We had best be careful with our stone throwing, because our distance from them is more rhetorical than real. As much as we rail against racism, our churches are still the most segregated institutions in America today. Though we have been ordaining women as ministers for decades and can even boast a few women bishops, the glass ceiling is still alive and well throughout the church at large. We may have come a long way in recent years toward welcoming gay, lesbian and transgendered people in theory, but in practice our churches still harbor more than a little fear, hostility and bigotry against them. At some level, it seems that we have yet to free ourselves from the angry, intolerant, moralistic monster we have created in our own image and made god.
Or perhaps our struggle is not so much to free ourselves from a false notion of God as it is to believe in the true vision Jesus opens up for us. At the end of our gospel reading, the disciples are left with no bright light, booming voice or all-encompassing cloud. Moses and Elijah have vanished. Jesus alone remains with them-and that is all the God there is. No wonder the disciples kept silent about this event. How can you comfort a frightened child with a God who is only human, who will not invoke protective angelic armies, who will not shield his disciples from the cross he must bear, who warns them that the only glory worth having is in siding with the hungry, the sinful, the outcast, the sick, the condemned criminal and the outsider-the last folks you’re likely to find sitting next to you in the pew on Sunday. How much comfort and security are you going to find with this God who calls you into a way of living that is likely to get you killed? How can you trust a God who is not in control? The god who sits in front of the instrument panel making everything happen on earth is a mirage. He does not exist. The only real God is the one whose heart breaks on the cross, but still keeps loving and forgiving; the God who came to win hearts by the power of his Word rather than to win wars by the might of his armies. This alone is God. Listen to him.
When we listen to Jesus, he helps us re-imagine God-not as the mere projection of our own prejudices and our need for security-but as the one who slowly, patiently and gently draws the universe into reconciliation and invites us to participate in that good work. When we listen to Jesus, we discover, not the god made in our own image, but the God who transforms us into God’s image.
Here’s a poem by Brook Emery about re-imagining God.
Monster [It’s possible I misconstrued you]
It’s possible I misconstrued you,
laid too much emphasis on the uniqueness of a birth,
failed to acknowledge circumstance could corrupt, sustain;
I indulged myself in accusations against an absolute.
I don’t believe what I then believed. You are not responsible
for Leibniz or the Lisbon quake, for the twenty-six-eyed
and sixty-arsed box jellyfish, that the cosmos
is shaped like a soccer ball; or for the dosido
of right and wrong around the garden bed.
You are not the monster I thought you were,
not by definition or necessity the one immutable.
You are a creator caught in a creator’s net, in fact
a creature. Every horror has its own pathology,
the disease infects the flock. Prey present as predators,
the malefactors replicate even as the angels
experiment with cures. Each encounter pulls against reductive story,
says I will not, I am just (an instant, an instance),
and reference skews on maps not drawn to scale.
I know saintliness exists. It’s all around me.
My next door neighbours in their simple modesty,
the lady down the street who is always
helping someone older than herself. Even the slow
judicial process conceives it natural to be better
than we are. I’m trying to shoo the gloomy birds away
but crows repeat about me on the lawn; and the vulture
and the kite, the cuckoo and the owl: should I have given up the ghost
when I was drawn from the womb?
By Brook Emery
Source: Uncommon Light, Five Islands Press, 2007 (c. 2007 by Brook Emery). Brook Emery is an Australian poet and high school teacher born in 1949. His poems integrate philosophy, science, and psychology. You can find out more about Emery and his many poetic works at the Poetry Foundation website.
Chapter 34 of Exodus forms the climax of a narrative section beginning with Exodus 32 relating the story of idolatry with the golden calf and Moses’ smashing of the original two tablets of the law. In Exodus 33, Moses intercedes with God and achieves a healing of the breach of covenant occasioned by Israel’s idolatrous conduct. Exodus 34 recounts the restoration of the covenant terms. Notably, Moses himself cuts these tablets and inscribes the law upon them whereas the first tablets were inscribed “by the finger of God.” Exodus 31:18. Professor Childs seems to think that this is simply a distinction without a difference. Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, The Old Testament Library (c. 1974 by Brevard S. Childs, pub. by The Westminster Press) p 611. I am not so sure about that. I suspect that the narrator means to tell us that this episode of unfaithfulness on Israel’s part, which later became a paradigm of prophetic preaching in the 8th and 9th Centuries B.C.E., has done some long term, if not permanent damage to the covenant relationship.
Moses has just come down from the top of Mt. Sinai. He has been up there for forty days fasting and writing the terms of the renewed covenant onto the two stone tablets. He is quite unaware that he has been noticeably changed, so much so that the children of Israel are afraid of him. This is a mystery, of course. I doubt we will ever understand exactly what happened to Moses at Sinai, but perhaps there are some analogies in our own experiences that give us a glimpse. I remember the return home of each one of my three children from their first semester at college. They were changed. They had been exposed to new ideas and values different from the ones with which they grew up. They had experienced a measure of independence that had given them a new sense of confidence. They thought about and responded to me in new and often critical ways that often made me just a little uncomfortable. They were still the same kids they were when I left them at the dormitory-but they were also different. I knew that if I was going to continue having a meaningful relationship with them, I had to start relating to them differently. Things between us would be different from now on. Good, but different.
How much more changed a man must be after a face to face encounter with the God of Israel! Moses was returning after having received the Torah, the commandments and ordinances that would assist Israel in living into nationhood as the chosen people of God. He had seen the shape of holiness. That is not the sort of experience you can share in a brief press release. Neither can you undergo such an experience and expect to come back the same person. It will take some time for Moses to unpack everything he brought with him from the top of Mt. Sinai and it will take some time for the people to digest it.
We all have life changing experiences that shape who we are. Some of them shape us for the better. Others can leave us wounded and scarred. Life is such that you cannot control the experiences you are going have. But you can put yourself in a place where you are assured that God’s Word will be a powerful and transformative experience in your life. You can make time with the scriptures a part of every day. You can make prayer a daily practice. You can worship with your sisters and brothers gathered around the preaching of God’s Word and the Eucharistic meal. I cannot promise that you will come away from church with your face glowing; but you can be sure that your heart is being transformed by the working of God’s Spirit.
It should also be noted that St. Paul cites this story in his Second Letter to the church at Corinth. II Corinthians 3:7-18. For Paul, the veil over Moses’ face symbolizes the obstruction to a correct understanding of Moses that can only be removed by faith in Jesus Christ.
This psalm appears to be constructed in three sections, each ending with the refrain “Holy is he [God].” See vss. 5, 7 & 9. Like psalms 93 and 97, this psalm acclaims God as king over all the earth. The fact that these psalms make no mention of the kings of Israel or Judah suggests that they were composed after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem ending the line of Davidic kings. To a vanquished people in a world filled with unjust and tyrannical kings, this psalm boldly proclaims that the only true King is the Lord. This King is a “lover of justice,” has “established equity” and has “executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.” Vs. 4. Naturally, then, the peoples and their unjust rulers tremble when confronted with the reality of God’s kingship. Vs. 1.
The “cherubim” (Vs. 1) were winged bull like creatures with lion heads. Dahlberg, B.T., “Angel,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1, (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) pp. 131-132. Two of these fabulous beasts were carved at the top of the Ark of the Covenant over which the God of Israel was thought to be enthroned. Exodus 25: 18-20; Exodus 37:6-9; Numbers 7:89; I Samuel 4:4; I Kings 6:23-28; I Kings 8:6-7. If this reference is to the Ark, it is possible that the psalm is of much earlier origin than generally thought, dating back to the early period of the monarchy when the Ark was still in Israel’s possession. But the term “cherubim” is also used to personify storm clouds and thunder storms. Therefore, its use here is not inconsistent with a composition date for this psalm after the Babylonian conquest.
The mention of Moses, Aaron and Samuel, prominent men of faith who lived and ministered before the rise of the monarchy in Israel, further suggests that this psalm is post-exilic. Vs. 6. Having seen generations of kings fall short of what righteousness and justice demand, Israel was now convinced that God alone deserved the title “king.” Though their actions had an undeniable political dimension, the chief role of the three figures named in this psalm was priestly and intercessory. Aaron was the founding figure of cultic practice in Israel. Moses’ intercessions frequently came between Israel and God’s wrath at her disobedience. So also Samuel interceded on Israel’s behalf on numerous occasions. Yet while the psalmist affirms the role and legitimacy of Israel’s priestly establishment and the sacrificial worship over which it presides, this worship is only effective because “thou wast a forgiving God to them.” Vs. 8. The sovereignty and power of God, though manifested in storms and earthquakes, is chiefly expressed in God’s zeal for justice and readiness to show mercy.
A few words about Paul’s Second letter to the Corinthian church are in order. Paul evidently made a visit to the church in Corinth after writing I Corinthians. This visit was “painful” and did not result in any reconciliation of differences between the apostle and his congregation. Rather than attempting another visit that he feared would also be unsuccessful, Paul wrote a “letter of tears” to Corinth sent by the hand of Titus. Fearing the effects of this severe letter, Paul left Troas in Asia Minor where he had begun a successful mission and returned to Macedonia in search of Titus. Paul rejoined Titus in Macedonia and was greatly relieved to learn that the Corinthians had indeed responded favorably to his “severe” letter with a change of heart toward him. Paul wrote II Corinthians expressing his gratitude to the congregation and to encourage it in its faith.
For centuries biblical scholars have puzzled over the abrupt change in tone between II Corinthians 1-9 and II Corinthians 10-13. Most scholars now agree that these two sections represent different letters, though both authored by Paul, chapters 1-9 constituting the earlier letter and chapters 10-13 forming a later message. Furnish, Victor Paul, II Corinthians, The Anchor Bible Commentaries, (c. 1984 by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) p. 41. Some scholars maintain, however, that chapters 10-13 constitute all or part of Paul’s “letter of tears” while chapters 1-9 constitute a subsequent letter of thanksgiving written in response to Titus’ favorable report. Ibid p. 37.
Paul is here interpreting the lesson from Exodus discussed above. You will recall that Moses’ face glowed following his descent from Mt. Sinai with the tablets of the law. This change in Moses frightened the people and so Moses wore a veil when addressing the people. When Moses spoke with God, he removed the veil. Paul compares this veil on Moses’ face to the veil he contends prevents some of his fellow Jews from recognizing Jesus as God’s messiah. The metaphor is difficult because Moses’ veil was not designed to hinder the people from seeing or hearing him, but rather to protect them from the radiance of God’s glory by which they felt threatened. Moses, not the people, takes cover under the veil. Consequently, we need to focus not so much on the people as on Moses. When Moses turns to speak with the Lord, the veil is removed. The glory of God is allowed to permeate Moses and he is transfigured with light. But when Moses turns away from the Lord, he must put on the veil.
According to Paul, Moses is rightly understood and seen only when he is face to face with God. He is no longer a mediator between God and Israel. Now God has shown directly into the hearts of his people “to give the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” II Corinthians 4:6. Thus, only in Jesus Christ are the Hebrew Scriptures fully understood. “And we all,” says Paul, “with unveiled face [like Moses], beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed [like Moses] into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.” II Corinthians 3:18. What could previously be seen only through the veiled face of Moses can now be seen directly in Jesus. The same transformative power that filled Moses with light now shines through Jesus in the church.
Luke tells the transfiguration story a little differently than do Mark and Matthew who also report this amazing event. In Luke, the disciples are “weighted down” with sleep, but may not have actually fallen asleep. Vs. 32. Luke tells us not only that Jesus was conversing with Moses and Elijah, but also what they were talking about. They were speaking of the “departure” that Jesus was to accomplish at Jerusalem. Vs. 31. It is highly significant that the Greek word Luke uses for “departure” is the same one the Greek Old Testament uses for the title of the second book of the Bible, “Exodus.” The Exodus, of course, is the foundational and most significant saving act of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus, Luke wishes to make absolutely clear that God is about to accomplish through Jesus’ suffering and death a new Exodus, a new saving event. The presence of Moses, the giver of the law, along with Elijah, the greatest of all prophets, indicates that this new Exodus to occur in Jerusalem, the City of David, will fulfill the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures. So when we arrive at verse 51 in which Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” we know that a critical turning point in the narrative has arrived. Jesus is now zeroing in on his primary objective.
The cloud enveloping the mountain top cannot help but bring to mind God’s appearance in the cloud over Mt. Sinai-the place from which Moses returned glowing with divine glory. Quite understandably, the disciples are afraid of the overshadowing cloud. So, too, the voice from the cloud is reminiscent of the voice thundering from Sinai so terrifying the people of Israel that they begged Moses to implore God no longer to speak directly to them. Exodus 20:18-20. Of course, it is also possible to see in this event a reflection of Elijah’s encounter with God on the holy mountain in the 19th Chapter of 1 Kings. There, too, the prophet encountered a powerful wind storm, an earthquake and a terrifying fire. In this case, however, God’s word was not found in any of these impressive natural events. Instead, God was heard in a “still small voice” or, as some translators have rendered it, “a sound of sheer silence.” I Kings 19:12.
I am intrigued by the possible link to the Elijah story because it alters my Sunday School impression of that voice from the cloud as deep, commanding and terrifying. Although the disciples are frightened as they enter the cloud, there is no indication that the voice from the cloud had a similar effect. Luke does not have the disciples falling on their faces in fear as do Mark and Matthew. Thus, I wonder whether my image of this event has not been colored more by Cecil B. DeMille than careful reading of the text. How does the voice of God really sound? How did the disciples perceive it? Would we know the voice of God even if we heard it? How does this question shape our perception of Jesus as God’s Son?
The marvelous thing about this story is its incomprehensibility. It raises more questions than it answers and reminds us that however much we may think we know about Jesus, we are not close to knowing him fully yet.