Reading Time Backwards

SUNDAY OF THE TRANSFIGURATION

Exodus 34:29-35

Psalm 99

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

Luke 9:28-36

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.

“And while [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Luke 9:29-31.

There are four versions of this story of Jesus’ transfiguration. One is related in our gospel for this coming Sunday from Luke the Evangelist. Two are in the gospels of Matthew and Mark (Matthew 17:1-8 and Mark 9:2-8 respectively). Another is found in the Second Letter of Saint Peter. II Peter 1:16-19. Though Matthew and Mark both tell us that Jesus was seen speaking with Moses and Elijah, only Luke tells us what they were talking about. They were speaking, Luke tells us, of Jesus’ “departure” to be accomplished in Jerusalem. The word translated here as “departure” is the Greek word “exodos,” the same one used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures for the departure of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Thus, the discussion is not simply about Jesus leaving or going away. It is about a saving event that will liberate an enslaved people from bondage and make of them a new people, namely, Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The renowned New Testament scholar, Rudolf Bultmann, is convinced that the transfiguration story is an ancient resurrection account transposed in the gospels for literary reasons. Bultmann, Rudolf, History of the Synoptic Tradition, (c. 1963 by Basil Blackwell, pub. 1976 by Harper & Row) p. 259. However that might be, there is no denying the story has a resurrection glow to it. We are told that Moses, Elijah and Jesus appear “in glory.” In some manner beyond our capacity to comprehend, eternity is impinging on time, bending it into a single point where the beginning is fused with the end, the promise meets fulfilment and the line of demarcation between life and death dissolves. We get a foretaste of the resurrection and a fleeting glance at what it means for God to be “all in all.” I Corinthians 15:28. This is what Hollywood would call a “spoiler.” The Transfiguration of Jesus betrays the climactic end of creation’s story in the middle of the narrative.

One might critique the Evangelists’ literary style, but their witness is entirely consistent with the scriptural insistence that creation has a beginning and an end. God is the origin of both and is active everywhere in between. In the Biblical view of things, the future does not follow nor is it determined by the past. The end is the origin of the beginning and, for disciples of Jesus, forms the shape life takes in the middle. Knowing this changes everything and answers for us the question, “How, then, shall we live?” The contours of the new life to which Jesus calls us are sketched out in the gospel lessons from the last two Sundays in which the false gods of wealth and violence are dethroned in favor of radical generosity, limitless forgiveness and dedication to reconciliation. As articulated by Michael L. Budde, Professor of Catholic Studies and Political Science at DePaul University, “….within the Church, people are supposed to start acting as if the Kingdom has already begun, and that the Church is called to show the world that a different way to live is possible here and now, even as the old order seeks to preserve itself against the onslaught of the coming Kingdom of God.” “Eschatology, the Church, and Nonviolence: Some Provisional Claims” published in Foolishness to Gentiles: Essays on Empire, Nationalism, and Discipleship, (c. 2022 by Michael L. Budde, pub. by Wipf and Stock Publishers) pp. 84-85.

For this reason, it matters that the weathered old man I frequently see in my walks on the beach carries a garbage bag, as do I, for the plastic bottles, aluminum cans and other refuse we find along the shore. It matters that local churches, businesses and individuals in our town put togethera weekly dinner for families finding themselves food insecure. It matters that the church to which I belong sponsors a refugee family fleeing violence and persecution. Of course, one might reasonably ask whether such feeble do-gooding actually makes a difference. What good does picking up a few bottles on the beach do in the face of looming, systemic ecological collapse? What does one meal per week do for a family facing hunger during all seven days of the week? What is one family rescued from the misery of refugee camps compared to the millions that remain? From the perspective of pure pragmatism, it is hard to argue with that logic. Yet I hear an echo in all these objections of the question put by Saint Andrew to Jesus when commanded to feed the hungry crowd of five thousand: What are five loaves and a few fish among so many? John 6:1-14. Placed in the hands of Jesus, what we have to offer and, indeed, who we are becomes so much more than we can imagine. That is because the gentle, just and peaceful reign of God at the end of time has been with us since the beginning and has erupted into the middle of time with the obedient life, faithful death and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. As stated by Orthodox theologian and teacher, John Panteleimon Manoussakis:

“Theologically speaking, then, the cause of the things that happen and have happened lies not in their beginning but ‘in the end,’ for they come from the kingdom of God: it is the kingdom that is, properly speaking, their origin…Eschatology…reverses naturalistic, essentialist, and historicist models by making the seemingly improbable claim that I am not who I am, let alone who I was and have been, but rather, like the theophanic Name of Exodus (3:14), I am who I will be. Eschatological theology is deep down a liberating theology…The shadow now does not follow but rather precedes reality, so that, in Christian typology, the present condition of things as things-themselves is merely an adumbration of things to come.” “The Anarchic Principle of Christian Eschatology in the Eucharistic Tradition of the Eastern Church,” Manoussakis, John Panteleimon, Harvard Theological Review, 100:1 (2007) pp. 31-32, as cited in Foolishness to the Gentiles, supra. at p. 84.

That is good news, for a world threatened with global environmental disaster, teetering on the brink of war and sliding toward fascism. It is good news for every social worker with an impossibly high caseload. It is good news for struggling churches in dying communities. It is good news for doctors, nurses and volunteers working long hours with inadequate resources in refugee camps around the world filled with people who seem to have no future. While we cannot save ourselves, much less the world, God is even now taking up our flawed selves and our incomplete offerings, weaving them into that glorious mosaic we call the reign of God.

What follows is a poem by Raymond P. Fischer suggesting a different view of time than that which we have instinctively imposed upon ourselves and the natural world. “Somewhere,” the poet says, “there is a sum of everything.” That is perhaps not far removed from the Biblical understanding of time.  

Time

When Eve met Satan in creation’s garden

She set time free within the universe.

Planets began to circle, stone hardened.

Coveting knowledge, man received a curse-

That was the choice that set all things in motion-

Caused spinning worlds to measure off the days,

And moon to swing round the earth pursued by ocean.

Somewhere there is a sum of everything,

Where light returning meets the light that goes;

Where fading music finds an echoing;

Where tide ebbs is lost in tide that flows.   

Source: Poetry, April, 1984. Raymond P. Fischer (1900-1990) was an American businessman and poet. He was born in Wheaton Illinois, the youngest of twelve children and grandson of abolitionist Jonathan Blanchard, the founder of Wheaton College. Fischer attended Wheaton College and Pomona College, California. He then transferred to Harvard Law School, graduating in 1924. Fischer practiced law for fifteen years before entering private business, serving as executive vice-president of Cuneo Press. Thereafter, he served as president of Combined Paper Mills and as director of the National Tea Company. He was a member of the Salvation Army advisory board and head of the Associated Consultants of Wheaton, Illinois. As a prep school student, Fischer submitted a poem to Poetry magazine that caught the attention of the magazine’s founder and editor, Harriet Monroe. His poem was subsequently published. He published five more poems in Poetry and in 1985 published a collection of poetry entitled An Aged Man Remembers April, which he dedicated to Monroe. You can sample more of Fischer’s poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

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