Divine transformation

6 August 2017
The Feast of the Transfiguration
Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Peter 1:13-21
Luke 9:28-36

The Feast of the Transfiguration, which falls on August 6, is classed by the Prayer Book as a feast of our Lord Jesus Christ, and as such, takes precedence over a Sunday. Consequently, we won’t read Proper 13 this year, but replace it with the Transfiguration. We’ll miss Matthew’s version of the feeding of the 5000.

We are used to hearing the story of the Transfiguration on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, just before we begin our Lenten journey toward the cross, and there is some wisdom in that placement of the story. Certainly, in Luke’s Gospel, the Transfiguration occurs just a few verses before Jesus “sets his face towards Jerusalem,” and Moses and Elijah converse with Jesus concerning the exodus he is about to accomplish. For Luke, the Transfiguration does serve as a kind of turning point for his narrative structure.

The Eastern Orthodox have always held that the Transfiguration is revelatory of the Trinitarian nature of the deity. Christ is revealed in his divine glory as the Son, the Second person of the Trinity. The Father is present in the voice from heaven, and the Spirit is the cloud which envelopes the tableau. The whole story is richly allusive. The voice is nearly identical with the voice at Jesus’ baptism (in which story, the dove represents the Spirit). Of course, Moses and Elijah are present, both of whom encountered God on the mountain top. And Peter wants to build three booths. The Greek word skene is reminiscent of the Hebrew shekinah. It is used to describe the tabernacle in the wilderness, and can mean tent. It is the word for the canvas backdrop of Greek tragedies (from which English gets the word ‘scene’). And Jesus is about to accomplish his exodus.

We are reminded of the cloud which would settle over the tabernacle when the people encamped in the wilderness on the first Exodus, and would then lift off when they were to break camp. Moses desired to see God’s face on the mountain, but God only allowed him to see his backside, hiding him with his hand in the cleft of the rock. Elijah heard volcanic eruption and storm on the mountain, but God was not in the earthquake, storm or wind, but in the sound of sheer silence. In this instance, Moses sees the face of Christ transfigured in glory, and Elijah hears God’s voice. Luke certainly packs a lot into a few verses.

The reading from Exodus tells us that Moses was in the habit of conversing with God in the tent in the wilderness, and that whenever he did so, his skin of his face glowed from its proximity to glory. The people, however, were terrified, just as Peter, James and John were terrified when they entered the cloud. The people took the contents of Moses’ conversation with God as law, rather than intimacy. Perhaps, to be in conversation with God requires us to learn to see ourselves as God sees us. Too often, we experience that as judgment, when in fact God extends it as grace. The primal sin was to take for ourselves the knowledge of good and evil, to judge ourselves. In doing so, we put ourselves in the place of God, thinking our judgments are divine, that if we consider ourselves unlovable, then surely God must also. And so, we are terrified to encounter God.

The author of 2 Peter uses the same word (skene) for tent or tabernacle: “I think it is right (or just) as long as I am still in this tabernacle, to keep you wakeful by reminding you, knowing as I do that the putting off of this tabernacle of mine will come soon.” The wakefulness is the same wakefulness that allowed Peter, James and John to behold Christ’s glory on the mountain, despite being weighed down with sleep. Christ, as the son Incarnate, is the image of God restored in humankind, and to the extent that we are incorporated into Christ’s human nature, we also show forth the image of God restored. Coming to inhabit that image, however, is a life long process, a 40 year journey through the wilderness led by the cloud.

Moses was not allowed to enter the promised land, but saw it from a distance from the mountain top. Jesus, once the cloud is lifted sets out on his own journey to Calvary. We have our own journey to make.

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