Behold the Glory of God

Transfiguration Sunday
Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36

Transfiguration Sunday stands as the culmination of the season after Epiphany. We began with the light of the star that directed the magi to the child Jesus. We followed Jesus to the temple for his dedication and witnessed the early stages of his ministry, including his baptism by John. Now, the light of this season brings us to the mountain of Transfiguration.

Because of this occasion, the lectionary passages for this week play on one another, at some times subtly echoing each other and at other times directly referring to one another. For example, Moses’ face is glowing or shining when he returns from talking with God. The psalmist exhorts us to “worship at [God’s] holy mountain” (Psalm 99:9), and Paul challenges us to proceed into the world with “unveiled faces” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Moreover, the imagery in these texts is fertile, offering us the imaginative resources not only to see Christ transfigured, but to encounter God’s creation in a transfigured manner as well.

In the gospel lesson, Luke follows Matthew and Mark in describing Jesus’ meeting with Moses and Elijah, symbolizing the law and the prophets, respectively. Only Luke, however, tells us that the three of them are discussing Jesus’ “departure” (Luke 9:31). This word, which could be literally translated as “exodus”, hints at more than Jesus’ coming itinerary. Indeed, the deliverance of Israel flashes in the background and is linked to Jesus’ final destination of Jerusalem, where he will suffer and die. This is an appropriate place to be, then, on the Sunday that precedes Ash Wednesday and the start of the journey of Lent.

When we read these passages together, a comparison between Moses and Jesus comes to the surface. We are reminded that the shiny appearance of Moses’ face (and by extension, Elijah’s on the mountain of transfiguration) is a reflection of God’s full glory. By contrast, Jesus’ whole self becomes “dazzling white” (Luke 9:29), becoming the source of that glory and not its mere reflection. Moses went up the mountain to meet God, while Luke tells us that Jesus was already praying on the mountain when this theophanic event occurred. Finally, Moses descends from the mountain with commandments from God (Exodus 34:29, 32), but Jesus descends the mountain after the voice from the cloud instructs the disciples to “listen to him!” (Luke 9:35). In short, he is the commandment of God.

Without a doubt, this theophany serves to identify Jesus as God. As the psalmist states, “let the peoples tremble” (Psalm 99:1), and we see this trembling in Peter, James, and John and in the Israelites who met Moses after he came down from the mountain. Paul writes, however, that there is a crucial difference between these two encounters. For the people of Israel, with their hardened minds, the veil not only kept them from seeing the full glory reflected on Moses’ face; it also prevented them receiving the fullness of God’s message through Moses because the veil kept them from perceiving the fading of the reflected glory (2 Corinthians 3:13). According to Paul, this veil must be removed, but this is only possible by turning to the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:16). By being unveiled through Christ, we are “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

There is one more thing related to this theophanic imagery: it should not lead us to set Christ’s divinity over against his humanity. Sometimes sermons and commentaries will describe Christ’s appearance at the Transfiguration as the former breaking out of the latter, as though his humanity obscures and even eclipses the divine. At its extreme, such a claim would set Jesus’ two natures against one another and threaten to divide him into two persons, though even more modest versions of this claim can offer a rather pessimistic view of human nature.

To be sure, it is not simply a commandment that descends from the mountain, but God in Godself. Nonetheless, God is incarnated in Jesus, which also transforms how we might view all things creaturely. John of Damascus declares that “The divine light is radiating from an earthly body. The godhead . . . enables the body to share in his own brightness and his own glory” (Homily on the Transfiguration of the Lord). That is, the divine has come near in Christ and revealed true human nature as sharing in the divine presence.

Irenaeus of Lyons stated that “the glory of God is a living [human being]; and the life of [humanity] consists in beholding God” (Against Heresies, 4.20.7). What does this mean? Perhaps that the divine light of Christ’s transfiguration does not happen over against his creaturely body, but through it, prompting us to seek and recognize the ways in which the divine light permeates the created order.

Luke notes that the Transfiguration occurs eight days after the previous episode. This is different from Mark and Matthew, who echo Exodus 24’s use of “six days later.” That the Transfiguration occurs on the eighth day signals a new creation that emerges in front of Peter, James, and John. Certainly they encounter God’s presence, but they also encounter a transformed world through that same presence.

Along these lines, Paul challenges us to embrace the world through the “sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2). That is, the Spirit’s freedom helps us see how the world might be redeemed and transformed in the light of the God who is a “lover of justice” and who “established equity” (Psalm 99:4). We do not lose heart (2 Corinthians 4:1) because we trust that God will ultimately transfigure the entire cosmos.

Polyphony of Glory

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.
Isaiah 6:3

The creeds can seem like rote, take-it-or-leave-it dogmatic moments in the liturgy, rather than expressions of hard-won, blood-stained wisdom wrung from centuries of wrestling with the meaning of God and human experience.
Tom Long

Talk about the Trinity sounds a far cry from “Jesus loves me, this I know.” Actually, the former can help illuminate the latter, and vice versa, but there are a couple of things one must keep in mind. The first is that Christian theology is a conversation that has been going on across two millenia and in countless historical situations. Taking it seriously involves the effort to become more fluent in this vast language.

The other thing to acknowledge is that each and every discipline has its unique vocabulary, from a CNA conversation in the hospital hallway to a quarterback calling plays in the offensive huddle. Theology is the kind of language that probes, clarifies, parses, distinguishes between ‘not this, not this, but this.’ One who properly uses this language admits with fear and trembling that even though words about God are “a raid on the inarticulate,” we must not settle for “the general mess of imprecision of feeling / Undisciplined squads of emotion (T.S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’). Read more

God of the Living

Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Haggai 1:15b-2:9
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Luke 20:27-38

Our lectionary readings for this week take us to the heart of our anxiety for control, power, and security. From Haggai’s assurances that the glory of Israel was never in the accomplishments of her rulers but in the LORD and his inscrutable ways, to Paul’s comforting words to the people of Thessalonica, to Jesus’s re-orientation of the Sadducees’ question about marriage in the resurrection—these passages simultaneously challenge and assure the Christian, especially the Christian in the midst of personal, social, and/or political turmoil.

Above all, in these passages, we are challenged to become a people of Life, of the Living God. We are assured, having become a people so conformed to the exuberant and abounding Life of the Lord, that we will not only share in that Life in the resurrection, but that even our present works bear the marks of that Life. With this in mind I will focus my reflection on Jesus’ emerging theology of resurrection in chapter 20 of Luke’s gospel.

Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.

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Transfigured in Him

Transfiguration Sunday

Mark 9:2-9

“And he was transfigured before them.” – Mark 9:2

“I can’t explain the goings or the comings. You enter suddenly and I am nowhere again, inside the majesty.” – Rumi

Dazzling white clothes, Moses and Elijah, voices from clouds – I am guilty of having sometimes rushed past the transfiguration accounts for how inaccessible such an experience of Jesus seems to me. Perhaps it’s a story challenging to preach or teach, as it offers no tidy moral imperative, no clear implication for how to live in light of the disciples’ witness. Instead, the transfiguration account is fluent in mystery, begging us to place ourselves in the narrative and walk around inside of it – climb the mountain, see the glory, fumble out our own dumbstruck words laced with terror, and in the end, be brought back to the resurrection. Read more

They Cried to the Lord

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Exodus 33:12-23
Psalm 99
I Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

“They cried to the Lord, and the Lord answered them” (Psalm 99:6b)

The Psalmist’s words will be the entrance into this week’s Scripture passages. The hope as we gather in our respective places of worship is that the words of the texts will not only say something, but also do something. Paul Simon’s song “Wartime Prayers” helps bridge that divide. Simon, who admits he is as surprised as anyone at how God keeps showing up as the subject of his songs, has the poet’s gift of speaking in image rather than in proposition. He also unashamedly joins the chorus of the needy.

“Show me your glory,” Moses cries to the Lord. His plea is occasioned by God’s command to leave the Mountain, the place of special revelation, for an unknown future. He yearns for certainty. “Show me your glory,” he cries. Read more