By Tom Mundahl
Exodus 34: 29-35
2 Corinthians 3: 12 – 4:2
Luke 9: 28-36 [37-43]
As we complete the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany complex, once more we dress the altar, lectern, and ministers in bright white to celebrate the Transfiguration of Our Lord, a festival that crystallizes the meaning of the incarnation and anticipates resurrection. This is a Sunday of mystery which needs to be experienced, not explained. As Karl Rahner wrote a generation ago: “The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has ‘experienced’ something, or he [sic] will cease to be anything at all” (quoted in Bernard McGinn, “The Future of Past Spiritual Traditions,” Spiritus, Vol. 15, No. 1, p 1). This week’s texts are rich in just this way.
For example, the appointed psalm, a hymn of enthronement, sets our theme by describing the holiness of the LORD, enthroned upon the cherubim of the ark of the covenant, with power to make the earth quake (Psalm 99:1). The triple refrain, “Holy is he” (vv. 3, 5, 9) suggests the depth of response to the mysterium tremendum of God’s holy presence. Mays compares this psalm to Isaiah’s throne vision. (Isaiah 6) Just as Isaiah of Jerusalem would never be the same after this experience, so those performing and appropriating this psalm are now invited to see God and creation in a new way (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox, 1994, p. 316).
Much the same can be said of this week’s First Lesson, describing Moses’ second return from the heights of Sinai with new tablets engraved with the commandments. This time there was no golden calf (Exodus 32), but Moses’ “face shone because he had been talking with God” (Exodus 34:29). Moses veiled his face so that those looking would not be blinded—except when he shared the word of God with the people. How can we even begin to comprehend the meaning of this brightness?
Perhaps we could say that it marks Moses apart as the one “ordained” to bring God’s word to the people, much like a liturgical minister dressed in white alb, stole, and chasuble for eucharistic service—or even more so, an Orthodox wearing vestments that shine with the brightness of gold threads! But because Moses cannot “divest” himself of this brightness, might we not say that “in some sense he embodies that word” (Terence Fretheim, Exodus, Louisville: John Knox, 1991, p. 311). That is, Moses’ shining face is the only vision of the “face of God” safely available to the community.
But if Moses embodies that word, what does “embodiment” mean? Perhaps there is also a sense of “bodying forth” in the midst of creation. As Fretheim suggests, “The human response can never simply be to believe or speak; it must also mean to do, to re-embody the word in the world. Moreover, the word is imaged in a shining, a radiance, a brilliance, an incandescence, a fieriness. As such it evokes freshness, vividness, intensity and splendor . . . . As such, it evokes ardor, zeal, vigor and vitality” (Fretheim, p. 312). That is, the beauty and splendor of holiness points beyond wobbly knees to new imaginative ways of living and being together, a quality we draw on each time we use the Aaronic benediction.
While the interpretive schema used by Paul in this week’s Second Reading are clearly not adequate (e.g. “what once had glory has lost its glory because of greater glory;” 2 Corinthians 3:10), perhaps Paul is closer to the mark as he examines his relationship to Corinthian believers. “You yourselves are our letter, written on our (your?) hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:2-3). He could almost be echoing the baptismal exhortation, “Let your light so shine before others that they see your good works, and glorify your Father in heaven.”
The brightness only increases as Jesus ascends the mountain of transfiguration. Luke begins to differ from the Markan source immediately, writing that Jesus went up the mountain “about eight days after these sayings” (Luke 9: 28). While ecclesiastical tradition has come to understand “the eighth day” as the beginning of new creation, commentators point out that Luke may be insuring that even though the identity of Jesus as prophet-messiah is clear, he is not simply “a prophet like (equivalent to) Moses” (Deuteronomy 18:15). Moses went up to the mountain “after six days;” Jesus, the greater one, begins his climb “about the eighth day.”
What may be more important for understanding the significance of the transfiguration in Luke is the fact that he brackets the narrative with nearly the same phrase, in those days (v. 28, “it happened after eight days”) that he uses for the Zechariah-Elizabeth (Luke 1:5, 24), Mary’s journey to Elizabeth (Luke 1:39), and the beginning of the birth narrative (Luke 2:1). The same phrase is repeated at the completion of our pericope (v. 36): “And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” Certainly this “inclusio” highlights the importance of the transfiguration to Luke.
Its significance is found particularly in Luke’s special material. Unique to his account is the content of the conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.” They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure (exodus), which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9: 31). This “exodus” carries at least a two-fold meaning: first, the journey that Jesus would embark on with his followers to Jerusalem with all of its teaching and other events (9:51-19:27), and second, the “exodus” of his physical death—resurrection—ascension which are so central to Luke-Acts, and the substance of “these sayings” as the transfiguration narrative begins. (Frederick Danker, Jesus and the New Age–A Commentary of St. Luke’s Gospel, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988, p. 199)
This is all missed by the disciples accompanying Jesus who had fallen asleep. As they awakened, they not only saw the extraordinary brightness, but determined that Moses and Elijah were beginning to depart. So Peter said, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Luke 9:33). After all, Peter and the others had missed “the fireworks” and perhaps, if they built dwellings called for by the Feast of Booths, they might be able to prolong the experience and “capture” the glory of God. Even more revealing in Peter’s suggestion is the equal accommodation all three “prophets” receive. To correct this, suddenly a terrifying nimbus of divine presence overshadows them. From this murkiness a voice emerges, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him” (Luke 9:35). (Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts –A Literary Interpretation, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986, p. 224). The voice seems both to point back to Jesus’ first passion prediction (Luke 9:18-27) and ahead to things that are to come as the “exodus” unfolds.
While Luke does not contain the Markan command to keep silent about all of this, the evangelist tells us, “And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen” (Luke 9:36). What is the significance of this epiphany? Is it, as Tannehill and other commentators suggest, “an anticipatory vision of Jesus’ glory,” that is, “a vision of Jesus as he will be when, through resurrection and exaltation, he begins the messianic reign”? (Tannehill, p. 223). Or, in fact, is it just the opposite? Because the disciples sleep through the spectacular events, but do hear the words “listen to him”—another example of Luke’s aversion to apocalyptic demonstrations—is the message to pay close attention to the teacher?
I would suggest that both are the case—Luke surely had a reason to place the conversation concerning the “exodus, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (9:32) within this numinous setting bracketed by time references, “after about eight days” (9:28) and “in those days told no one” (9:36). This certainly suggests a different kind of time, a time that had taught interpreters to see the “eighth day” as symbol of new creation. For the silent inner circle of disciples—despite failures during Jesus’ arrest—were empowered by the Spirit—wind and flame—to proclaim, in essence, new creation on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21). In this view, the transfiguration demonstrates that “there is a depth to the world’s reality out of which comes the light that will connect, around and in Jesus Christ, all the complex pain and hope of creation” (Rowan Williams, The Dwelling of the Light –Praying with Icons of Christ, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004, p.10).
Yet, Luke’s placement of the transfiguration immediately prior to his “travel narrative” is a way of reminding the community that the Risen One is “still the journeying one, still gathering people into the kingdom, still being refused and opposed, but still the one coming to be received by the current assemblies of Christians . . . .” (Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, p. 111). That is, the assemblies or worship gatherings are precisely where followers still “listen to him,” baptize, and share in the Eucharist, experiencing the transfiguration necessary to serve all of creation. Following Fretheim’s lead, we might say that just as Moses’ radiance conveyed torah—words to be embodied—so the mostly hidden, but still available, brightness of the Risen One calls forward fresh and vivid approaches to passionate justice for all creatures. It is no accident that the Greek word for beauty (kalos) is also the word for goodness. As the beautiful liturgy of worship is completed with the “sending”—“go in peace, serve all creation,” it now is transfigured into the raw ingredients of justice: making “faith active in love.”
Notice that Lathrop described the Risen One as continuing to journey to the assemblies of Christians. While sometimes these are on cruise ships, or buses stuck in blizzards, most often they are at home. Amy Jill-Levine claims that the horizons of Judaism and Christianity differ markedly: Judaism maintains a goal of “making aliyah,” or, literally going home to Jerusalem, while Christianity moves toward what she calls “the goal of the eschatological end zone” (The Misunderstood Jew, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2006, p. 199). But surely she mistaken in this regard.
Instead of “the eschatological end zone,” we live toward “new creation” by planting trees with leaves, if not for the healing of the nations, at least for the enhancement of beauty and the nourishment of birds and pollinators in our back yards, parks, and boulevards. That is, just as “we listen in our local assemblies,” so we embody the brightness of transfiguration by building and planting at home. Luther is reputed to have advocated just such an action when a student asked, “Doctor Luther, what would you do if you knew the earth was to end tomorrow?” He replied, “I would plant an apple tree today.” This is not to say that we will relinquish travel and investigation of this miraculous planet. As T. S. Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding,”
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
That sounds like truly being at home.
Hymn Suggestions for the Transfiguration of Our Lord
Gathering—“Oh, Wondrous Image, Vision Fair” ELW 316
Hymn of the Day—“Holy God, Holy and Glorious” ELW 637
Sending—“Alleluia, Song of Gladness” ELW 318
Petition for Intercessory Prayer
God of all-surpassing glory, in the transfiguration you show us the brightness and energy of your new creation. Reflect that brightness through us as we serve and learn from all that you have made. God, in your mercy, Hear our prayer.
Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN firstname.lastname@example.org