Tag Archives: Transfiguration

Transfiguration of Our Lord (February 20, 2020) in Year A

All Creation Looks Forward to God’s Glory Dennis Ormseth reflects on the mountain experiences of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2017)

Readings for Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

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

Mountains matter.  Beginning with the readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, in which the mountains were called on by the prophet Micah to witness God’s controversy with God’s people, we have sought and found in the sayings of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount material grounding for an Earth-honoring faith. Now with the readings for the Sunday of the Transfiguration of our Lord, the mountains nearly speak for themselves, demanding our attention as part of some of the most important, defining narratives of the biblical tradition.

The texts constitute a thick conflation of several events in the history of God’s people, extended over the ages.  God, as it were, summons to the high mountain of the Transfiguration “those two great ancient worthies,”  Moses and Elijah, the founding liberator and lawgiver from the exodus from Egypt, and the great prophet from the reign of Ahab and Jezebel in the northern kingdom of Israel, respectively (Robert H. Smith’s phrase, from New Proclamation, Series A, 1998-1999, p. 171). Amplifying this look backwards, the first reading recalls Moses’ own encounter with God on Mt. Sinai. A comparison of these stories produces several elements held in common, which serves to tie them intimately together: each happens on a mountain, “six days later”, with a special select group; the shining face and skin, the bright cloud and voice from the cloud result in great fear on the part of the bystanders (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 348.)  Elijah brings to the scene an experience similarly connected to Sinai, as well. In the context of his conflict with Ahab and Jezebel and their priests of Baal, he ascends Sinai alone.  There he is caught up in a great wind, an earthquake and fire, and then hears out of the sheer silence the voice of God (1 Kings 19).  Belden Lane explores the connections here:

“The mountain narratives of Moses and Elijah had situated each of them within a context of loneliness and rejection.  In going to meet God on the mountain, the one had been scorned by his people, who demanded a golden calf to worship (Ex. 32:1).  The other had been threatened by Jezebel, who’d sworn herself to vengeance (I Kings 19:2).  In both cases, their ‘seeing of God’ on the mountain was but an interlude in an ongoing struggle, given at a time when the absence of God seemed for them most painfully real” (Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes:  Desert and Mountain Spirituality.  Oxford:  Oxford Univeersity Press, 1998, p. 135).

Thus the pairing of Moses and Elijah on Sinai with Jesus on Tabor lends political significance to the narrative of the Transfiguration. Tabor is thereby associated with a challenge to entrenched political power:

“Lying far from the corridors of influence in Jerusalem (or Egypt, for that matter), the mountains defy the authority of the state, ‘clashing with every royal religion enamored of image, vision, appearance, structure.’  Coming to Sinai, Moses had witnessed the overthrow of oppression in Egypt.  Elijah came to the mountain fleeing the corrupt regime of Ahab, having just undermined the hegemony of Baal on Mount Carmel. The mountain of God necessarily brings into question all claims to political power.  Its iconographic imagery challenges every human structure. Similarly, at Tabor, the transfiguration reaches beyond the present failure of political justice in Jerusalem to affirm an unrealized future where Christ is king” (Lane, p. 135).

Jesus brings to the mountain assembly his disciples Peter, James and his brother John, the fishermen to whom we were introduced on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, as he called them away from their life by the sea and the hardships of fishing under the oppressive control of Roman imperial rule. Jesus has been traversing Galilee with them, teaching, healing, and feeding people as they went, a journey interspersed by repeated visits to remote areas, including both mountains and the Sea of Galilee.  Their journey culminates just prior to their ascent of the mountain in Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, followed almost immediately, however, by a bitter exchange between Jesus and Peter over Jesus’ future path to Jerusalem and the cross. It is the opposition of his disciples to his disclosure that he will face crucifixion and death before being raised up (Matthew 16:21-28) that leads to the divine instruction from out of the cloud,  “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”

The second reading for this Sunday recalls the event of the Transfiguration in the voice of Peter from some time near the end of his life, apparently also in response to the religious challenge from an opponent, suggesting the continued immediate relevance of this instruction in the life of the young church:  “You will do well to be attentive to this [account] as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” As indeed do we, also.  The older and wiser Peter sees what these narratives share:  each of these men has been in a dark place, but they are being drawn into the light.  Moses, Elijah and Jesus each went to the remote mountain after experiencing difficulty in the communities for which they are leaders. Away from the political and religious centers of society, each time the manifestation of God lends legitimacy to their leadership in a time of conflict, and empowers their future course of action.  All three emerge, as it were, from the darkness of those conflicts into the holy light on the mountain, before descending the mountain to resume their leadership according to the will of God.

Thus the presence of Moses and Elijah confirms for Jesus’ disciples his “high rank and holy task,” encouraging them “to follow him in his unrelenting journey to the cross” (Robert H. Smith, p. 171). But Jesus’ traverse of this passage from dark to light is in one key respect different.  Readers of our comment on the text for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany might recall that we have recently heard from Moses’ farewell address from Mt. Nebo, in which he exhorted the people “to choose life” as they prepared to enter the promised land without him. Elijah’s adventure on Sinai followed on an opposite choice by the people and their leaders, once they lived in the land, of the way of death that is manifested in a pervasive drought in the land.  In contrast to both Moses’ prior exclusion from the land and Elijah’s conflict with royal idolatry there, Jesus has gone deeply into the land to engage its people, and has manifested there a benign and restorative presence among them.  He has been about the healing of the creation.

The conflict between Jesus and his disciples is particularly telling in this perspective.  As Robert H. Smith points out, in spite of their experience on the mountain, the disciples do not really hear what Jesus is saying. Matthew brings this section of his gospel to a close with an account of their dispute amongst themselves, as to who will be seated in positions of power and authority when Jesus ascends the throne of the kingdom (Matt. 20:20-27), an account that, as Smith notes, reverberates with damning significance for our own times:

“They all wanted to be in charge, to sit on seats of privilege and power.  It is not only pharaohs who build pyramids.  All the nations do it. Corporations do it.  Churches and schools organize hierarchies, and families and clans do it.  It all seems so natural.  It happens so regularly, so easily, so universally, that we find ourselves thinking, ‘of course the few were born to give orders, and the many were made to obey!’

But is it natural?  Where does it all come from?  From God?  Did God order the universe in such a way that humankind should exercise a ruthless dominion over the trees and rivers, over birds and beasts?  Did God’s voice really call out that men should rule over women?  The people of the Northern Hemisphere should dominate the poorer nations to the south?  Did the finger of God write that we should have social systems that are rigidly hierarchical, authoritarian, and patriarchal?” (Smith, pp. 172-73).

No, this pattern of domination does not come from God, as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has made clear.  It is those who are poor in spirit, those who lament the absence of righteousness in the land and desire above all its full restoration, the meek who give place to others in the full community of life and who seek peace, even to the point of refusing violence in return for persecution by their and Jesus’ enemies, who will be comforted and inherit the kingdom (see our comment in this series on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany). Indeed, Jesus’ passage through the countryside constitutes a foretaste of the healing of creation to come with his entry into the full reign of God as servant of all creation.  Followers of his way have been warned against “affairs of the heart” which contribute to the patterns of dominations that disrupt the good creation (see our comment on the Sixth Sunday). They will be salt and light for a sustained and illuminating demonstration of the kingdom, characterized by obedience to God’s creation-serving law and genuine and full-hearted love of the other, including non-human creatures (see our comment on the Fifth Sunday). But for all that to take place he needs first to go to Jerusalem to confront the authorities that hold the land in destructive bondage to the pursuit of power, privilege and wealth that will result in its ecological devastation and abandonment (see our comment on the Sixth Sunday).

As we prepare to leave the mountain with him and take the Lenten road to Jerusalem, however, it is important that we take note of both the specific location and the actual event of Jesus’ transfiguration. Again we would urge, the mountain itself matters. It has been observed that Mount Tabor, the presumed locus of the transfiguration, is a very different place than Mount Sinai.  Sinai is high and forbidding, “a place of dark and difficult beauty,” as Belden Lane experienced it on a climb to the peak.  For him, “it symbolized the wandering of the children of Israel, the experience of loss and the bread of hardness.  The Sinai wilderness is a place far from home, a ‘no man’s land’ of fire and smoke.” Mt. Tabor, on the other hand, is “a cone-shaped peak in Galilee,” appropriately captured in the words of Elisaeus, a seventh-century Armenian pilgrim, who described it as surrounded by “springing wells of water and many densely planted trees, which blossom from the rain of the clouds and produce all kinds of sweet fruits and delightful scents; there are also vines which give wine worthy for kings to drink.”  “If Sinai wins the soul by threat and leanness,” Lane comments, “Tabor compels by charm.” “In Jewish history,” he notes, “Tabor is associated with Deborah, the woman of faith and daring who led her people in defeating the captain of the Canaanites and his fearful iron chariots (Judg. 4-5).  This mountain is one possessed of an ancient, feminine energy.  It is Mother and Sister, one whose strength is bent toward nurture and wholeness.”  As he walked alone in cold rain on Tabor’s lower slopes, Lane found the mountain, “especially in the rain …a place of nourishment, a place to rest and be still” As he comments, in contrast to the landscape of Sinai, Tabor ‘offers a landscape of accessible and gentle beauty.  Like a wet, green breast rising out of the Plains of Jezreel, it is bathed in light, covered with woodland trees and wildflowers.” (Lane, pp. 124-25, 130-31.)

Belden’s contrast matches our expectation that Jesus would go to such a mountain as Tabor to help bring his disciples to a sense of the beauty of creation as it would be in a world freed from the pursuit of wealth and the associated all-encompassing pattern of domination.  “The sacred mountain, from Sinai to Tabor to Zion,” comments Lane rightly, “is a place where political priorities are realigned.  To flee to the mountain is to identify with the marginalized, with those denied access to the empowerment of the state and thus subject to its wrath.  Jesus and his disciples may well have contemplated such things as they walked down Tabor on their way back toward Jerusalem.”  But where the desert-mountain tradition “stringently insists that ‘moments of splendor’ serve the purposes of justice and responsibility in the ordinary life” (Lane, p. 135), the more ecologically harmonious experience of Tabor, we want to suggest, encourages the hope that somewhere ahead lies another mountain that instead invites us to ascend it more with the beauty of the infinite than the terror of injustice, more fascinans than tremendum, more love than dread.

We in fact take that to be the deepest meaning of what happened to Jesus there on Tabor: that “he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” is, as the Orthodox tradition understands it, the sign of things to come for the whole creation.  A recent visit by this writer to the sanctuary of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, outside of Ravenna, Italy, where the scene of the Transfiguration fills the apse, confirms this possibility.  Moses and Elijah rest on clouds to the left and right of the star-studded cosmic field which surrounds a cross that bears the face of Jesus at its center.  Below them, trees, flowers, birds and animals of the forest delight the eye, while sheep of the parish fold and their bishop walk amongst the lilies. Again Lane comments significantly:

“Tabor is the mountain of light, taking joy in the greening power of God’s spirit, as Hildegard, the twelfth-century Benedictine nun, described its impulse toward growth.  This is a mountain that thrives on abundance and redundancy.  It supports a plant life of variegated wonder.  The apocryphal Gospel of Hebrews connects its summit with the height of mystical insight; ‘The Holy Spirit, my Mother, came and took me by the hair and carried me to the great Mount Tabor.’  Here is effulgence, an excess of glory” (Lane, p. 140).

The Transfiguration, and the Eastern iconographic tradition that builds upon it, draws us forward with a vision of the “as-yet-unrealized but promised transfigured glory of the entire material world. Because of God having been made flesh in Jesus Christ, humans are able to glimpse the very face of God in matter itself” (Lane, p. 126).  God’s love of the creation, so amply exhibited in the readings of the Season of Epiphany, knows no final limit; all creation can look forward in joy to the culmination in God’s future of the reconciliation and incorporation of all things in the glory of God.  This is, indeed, an Earth-honoring faith.

Sunday September 11 – 17 in Year C

We are called to exercise the “priestly task” of interceding before corporations, military organizations, and governments that destroy God’s creation. Tom Mundahl reflects on Exodus 32:7-14 and Luke 15

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary  

Readings for September 11-17, Year C: (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)
Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-10
1 Timothy 1: 12-17
Luke 15:1-10

As we enter the last ‘trimester’ of Ordinary Time, our Common Lectionary readings continue to point God’s people toward creation care. This is particularly true as we take up once more Luke’s theme of New Exodus. Not only is this theme stated explicitly in the Transfiguration, where Jesus, Moses, and Elijah converse about Jesus’ “exodus” (NRSV, “departure”) to take place in Jerusalem (9:31); it is suggested throughout the Gospel.

For example, Luke presents us with another “Song of Miriam,” the Magnificat, this time not to accompany dancing on the far shore of the Reed Sea, but singing in response to Elizabeth’s acknowledgment of the importance of this child, whose birth will not only shower creation with mercy, but “bring down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly” (Luke 1:46-55).  What’s more, the very same (and rare) verb denoting the power of the Most High “overshadowing” this young woman, who becomes the faithful partner in birthing new creation, is repeated as the disciples on the mountain of Transfiguration are “overshadowed” by the power of the Most High impelling them toward participation in this New Exodus breaking in Jerusalem (Luke 9:34). This “overshadowing” also suggests the wind, fire, and verbal–interpretative fireworks that “create” and energize the new community in witness to God’s transformative action (Acts 2:1-21).

Even the first Exodus needs to be more broadly interpreted as much more than redemption history. As Terence Fretheim suggests, “. . . it is the Creator God who redeems Israel from Egypt. . . . . What God does in redemption is in the service of endangered life goals in and for the creation” (Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus, Louisville: John Knox, 1991, p. 13). Fretheim demonstrates that the Exodus narrative provides “cosmic purpose” behind God’s call of Israel in a setting of “creational need” to overcome the anti-life nature of Pharaoh’s power. This creation power once more roots  God’s people, who have come through the sea, on “dry land,” an image of new creation trumping power-mad chaos.

The purpose of this Exodus is creation-wide.  Israel is called to be a “nation of priests” –not as a sign of status and authority—but, just as a priest mediates hope and mercy to the community, Israel is to provide these for all of God’s creation. That is, the story of Israel –God’s people—is not an end in itself, but is told and enacted on behalf of all in the most inclusive sense (Fretheim, p. 14).

The breadth of this intention for the whole of creation is demonstrated dramatically at just what seems the moment of greatest crisis in the Exodus journey –the fashioning of “gods” in the form of a golden calf. Our reading depicts the one called LORD as being so disgusted that he says to Moses, “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely . . . .” (Exodus 32:7). In fact, the Holy One is so incensed that, finally, the request is simply to be “let alone” (Exodus 32:10).

But Moses will not let this God alone. Instead, Moses acts as “priest” interceding for his people. He mounts a broad appeal to God’s reasonableness and reputation: Why give the Egyptians more ammunition with which to laugh at this so-called “god” who brought people out to the wilderness just to kill them off? (Exodus 32:12).  Even more importantly, Moses appeals to God’s own promise given to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob) (Exodus 32:13). Clearly, if there was a divine change of mind, this Holy One would appear no more reliable than the “calf builders” (Fretheim, p. 286).

“And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster he planned to bring on his people” (Exodus 32:14). While this is a “change of mind,” a “turning” of decision, it is far from what we might understand as “repentance of sin.” Instead, “divine repentance is the reversal of a direction taken or a decision made. But God does repent of evil (ra’). Evil has reference to anything in life that makes for less than total well-being . . . .” (Fretheim, 286).

Responding to Moses’ priestly intercession, God moves beyond the people’s calf-building perversity in order to fulfill promises made that ultimately will bring about “salvation–healing” for all, including  creation. As Fretheim reminds us, “It is this openness to change that reveals what it is about God that is unchangeable: God’s steadfastness has to do with God’s love; God’s faithfulness has to do with God’s promises; God’s will is for the salvation of all” (Fretheim, p. 287).

Crucial to this intention is the calling of this Exodus people to be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). As Norman Wirzba reminds us: “At the most fundamental level, to be a priest of the world means that one is committed to receiving the world as a gift from God, and then seeing in the sharing of these gifts their most proper use. To be a priest (whether as a community or an individual) is to place oneself at the intersection of God’s sacrificial love and the sacrifices of creation’s many members as food and nurture” (Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. Cambridge: 2011, p. 205).

This is just what the Judean religious elite Jesus confronts has failed to do. And the leaders’ failure emphatically reminds us of the stubborn people for whom Moses intercedes. Luke writes, “And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:2). It is no surprise that this language echoes that of the Exodus people grumbling (LXX) about their lack of water to drink. (Exodus 17:3)

But here the “grumbling” is about Jesus’ welcoming all—even sinners—to the new creation community. In his teaching, Jesus demonstrates “priestly behavior.” Instead of condemning those called to live out a “priestly role”—interceding for and teaching the people—Jesus “intercedes” for them by sharing parables that free them to see the world in a new way so they may fulfill their priestly calling.

The three parallel stories told in Luke 15 not only contrast finding and losing, they provide the antidote to “grumbling” in celebration. The shepherd, the woman, and the Father all call those around them to “rejoice with me” (Luke 15: 6, 9, 32). Why celebrate? Because what was lost has been found. And, as both of the parables in our section make clear: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).

This is precisely the function of priestly leadership: not only to intercede for the “lost,” but to make it clear that they are welcome to take their place at the table of celebration (Luke 14:12-14). This breadth of invitation also reminds us that, having been found and nourished, we are all called to the “priestly task” of interceding and caring for creation.

Restoring the wholeness of creation and community is the purpose of the Most High who “overshadows” young Mary. This happens by toppling the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly (Luke 1:35, 1: 46-55). It is the purpose of the inner circle of disciples being “overshadowed” by the divine presence at the Transfiguration, namely, to serve as witnesses to a New Exodus in Jerusalem whose consequences are cosmic (Luke 9:34). This is much more than a matter of putting the “lowly” on the elite thrones; God’s people are “elevated” by receiving the creational gift of a new calling—to care for all that God has made.

While reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse in preparation for a book discussion group, I was taken by his description of the seemingly intractable challenges of dealing with the environmental ravages caused by a declining mining industry in Montana. Diamond cites a spokesperson for a large smelting company, ASARCO, who could not understand how the firm could be held responsible for all the damage it had caused. “Isn’t this the modus operandi of American capitalism? Business leaders are more likely to be accountants or attorneys than members of the clergy”  (Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin, 2005, p. 37).

If there are a few clergy among those reading this, you know the implication: clergy, as ineffectual as we might be, are the only ones who are tasked with struggling with the “the values” that might raise questions about corporate behavior. While this is the calling of all God’s people, at least this representative of the copper industry challenges “clergy” to perform their priestly roles.  If “clergy” is rooted in the Greek kleros, a term carrying the sense of “being assigned to a task,” then perhaps we need to actually exercise that ‘priestly task’ of interceding before corporations, military organizations, and governments that destroy God’s creation on the way to other “goals.”

Late in the summer of 2013, a Bloomberg News On-line Report indicated that in the past year Las Vegas had once more become the center of a new “real estate bubble.” The intensity of this boom in housing and other building is indicated by the fact that 60% of the recent purchases have been cash transactions!  (Kathleen Howley, “Bubbles Bloom Anew in Desert as Buyers Wager on Las Vegas,” Bloomberg.com, August 20, 2013)

At precisely the same time, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that continued drought has forced a reduction in water delivery from Lake Powell to Lake Mead, the Las Vegas Valley’s major water source. In fact, if there is no change in drought conditions, especially with winter snows that fill the Colorado River, by 2015, the water supply will have to be curtailed (Henry Brean, Las Vegas Review–Journal, online, August 16, 2013).

What is the “assigned task” to God’s priestly people? Is it to lead the “grumbling” at the lack of water? (Exodus 17:3). Or, is it to focus on the life-giving preciousness of water in worship, learning, service, and action, leading to new ways of using water and, perhaps, to new patterns of settling our bioregions? Another “New Exodus” in the desert!

Tom Mundahl, St. Paul, MN                                     tmundahl@gmail.com

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288