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.

Developing the Negatives

Transfiguration Sunday
Mark 9:2-9

I am just old enough to remember photography before the digital age.

As a teen I used to save up my $8 of allowance, which came every two weeks, to buy rolls of off-brand 35mm film. These I would load into the back of my camera, which was a little too large to fit comfortably in my pocket, and then I would have exactly 24 chances to get the photo shot I was hoping for. After the film was used, I would take it out of the camera, snap it back into the film canister case it came in, and take it to the local department store photo center – in my case, Walmart. And then I’d wait. Read more

Plastic Minds and Magic Eyes

Last Sunday After Epiphany (Year B) RCL

2 Kings 2:1-12
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-9

Not long ago my nephew was forcing me to find Waldo in page after page of busy scenes where somewhere there was a goofy guy in red and white stripes.  “Where’s Waldo”, “Magic Eye”–we love seeing games where we must pick out an image from visual confusion.  Perhaps this love comes from our history as hunters and gathers, when we had to unmask the camouflage of animals in order to gain our daily food.  Whatever it is, we love seeing what was invisible made suddenly apparent.

The ability to see beyond the obvious is a skill and we have to develop it.  I know people who have never been able to make a “magic eye” picture work for them, but most of us, after we see one “magic eye” image can see any “magic eye” image.  Once we learn how to see, we are able to see everything and anything anew.

Seeing is the common thread of The Revised Common Lectionary readings for this last Sunday of Epiphany.  Elisha must see Elijah taken up into heaven in order to have his double spirit, in 2 Corinthians Paul speaks of “the god of this world”  blinding “the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God,” and finally in the Gospel reading we have the recounting of the transfiguration where Peter, James and John see Christ glorified in an apocalyptic meeting with Moses and Elijah. Read more

Valley Girls (and Guys)

Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

Growing up just north of Los Angeles, I was hyper-aware of the San Fernando Valley.  Neither suburban nor Hollywood-cool, the Valley boasted its own style of dress and peculiar language.  Like, fer shure.  Living in the Valley had its difficulties:  stop-and-go freeway traffic during many hours of the day and an oppressive layer of smog bearing down upon the residents most of the year.

Our denomination had nine summer camps scattered all over southern California, and all of them were located in the mountains.  Kids from that Valley and the one I grew up in (the San Gabriel Valley) could get away for a week to find God and a little fresh air.  We hiked among towering pines, sat on rocks to sing songs around a fire, and when we did give in to sleep, did so in log cabins.  Lasting relationships were forged for campers, both among themselves and between them and God. Read more

Voice lessons

Psalm 29; Matthew 3:13-17

It’s no wonder that parts of the Church used to observe Christmas, Epiphany, and the Baptism of the Lord as part of one unified and extended celebration.  There’s a lot of revelation going on there.  Christ’s identity is revealed to shepherds, wise men, John the Baptist, and those gathered on the banks of the Jordan. 

The revelation continues on the Sundays after the Epiphany.  God appeals to our senses.  Whereas Ragan talked about seeing last week, this week we hear the Father’s voice tell us Read more