Embodiment is God’s means for the liberation of creation.
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]
The Feast of the Transfiguration is the climax of the Season of Epiphany. The Season has provided firm and ample grounds for advancing our concern for care of creation. The visit of wise men following the light of a star provides a mandate to explore the mixture of scientific knowledge and practical experience that is ecological wisdom for our time of global environmental crisis, and to advocate for its importance in the face of the despotic powers that seek to secure and extend their powers of domination no matter the cost to creation. The descent of the spirit in the form of a dove encourages us to hope that Jesus’ mission for the kingdom of God represents the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Noah, the beginning of a “whole new world” with an alternative way of life that supports well-being for every living creature. Jesus’ transformation of water into wine is sign of the coming consummation of the marriage of heaven and Earth, in which God promises that Earth will never be forsaken and left desolate: “whatever is amiss in creation will now be restored and make whole, even the most deeply embedded distortions in Yahweh’s world.” The inclusion of the year of Jubilee in the agenda of Jesus’ mission shows that care of creation is intimately joined with social justice and authorizes Jesus’ church to advocate for laws and practices that bring both justice and renewal for humans, other creatures, and the land. What the church can bring to the cause of ecological restoration of the earth beyond the anthropologically centered appeals of most political initiatives is the sustained energy of divine love that “bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things” for the sake of God’s beloved creation (See our comments in this series on the readings for the Sundays of Epiphany for arguments on these several points).
The great theophany of the Transfiguration lends fresh energy to these affirmations as we enter this week into the Season of Lent. The Gospel of Luke shares the basic structure and meanings of the other synoptic accounts, certain aspects of which serve to underscore the significance of the event for the cause of care of creation. Jesus’ glory is manifest in both his shining face and the dazzling white of his clothing. The clouds of divine immanence “overshadow” the mountaintop, and (special to Luke) then envelop all those gathered there. Thus do mountain, light, and clouds unite in a manifestation of divine presence that shares the power and character of Yahweh’s previous self-manifestation to Israel. Here again, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, “Yahweh relates as Yahweh chooses, without condition, reservation, qualification, or explanation” (Theology of the Old Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997; p. 569). To the theophanies of Mt. Sinai and Mt. Carmel represented by the presence of Moses and Elijah is joined an anticipation of the advent of the Son of Man who “comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels,” in “direct and immediate fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction in 9:26-27” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991; p. 154). The future of earth is in the hands of the God who created it and who is served by this Jesus, identified here as the Servant of God prophesied by Isaiah, the one who serves God by serving God’s beloved creation (Johnson, p. 156).
The event of the Transfiguration thus sets the course for what follows. The presence of Yahweh previously mediated to the people on Zion, Yahweh’s “holy mountain,” as our Psalmist for this Sunday reminds us (Psalm 99:1, 9), is now fully and forever identified with Jesus. With a subtle but significant modification of his synoptic sources, Luke specifically names the topic of conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah: it concerns his “departure” or exodus, the way that will lead through suffering and death in Jerusalem. The glory that was mediated by the temple on Zion is now to be mediated through him, precisely on the way of the cross. This transfer, we think it is important to note, is assisted by precisely those aspects of creation which have greatest power to manifest divine presence and authority: mountain, light, and clouds. Thus, does creation add its mystery and awe to this refocusing and redirection of divine presence.
It is, on the other hand, also important to note that none of the parties that are witness to the theophany, neither human nor non-human, are to continue to bear significance in the narrative to come. Peter’s suggestion regarding booths to mark the place of this divine intrusion is emphatically rejected; the mountain, previously unnamed, will be left unmarked. In spite of the glory manifest there, no new tabernacle will be created there to contain and mediate the glory to the people. The presence of God will no longer be identified with a singular, particular place or people (For our discussion of the demotion not only of Zion but also of all mountains as sacred precincts in the narrative of Luke, see our comment in this series on the readings for the Second Sunday of Advent). The glory of God is on the move toward the ends of the inhabited world. As the cloud lifts from the mountain top, not only does Jesus stand alone, but his face and clothing no longer shine with divine brilliance. The silence of those who shared in the experience will suffice to keep the event from public knowledge until the resurrection (“And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen” Luke 9:36). And as the reading from 2 Corinthians suggests, unlike the theophany of God on Sinai, no fading light will bring into question the power and authority of the now sole mediator of God’s presence. Henceforth, that presence will be completely identified with the Spirit; and unveiled faces will bear testimony to new light, “light that shines out of darkness” (3:18), and “in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Death, darkness, and human evil, also all participants in Earth’s community of life, are to be taken up into the narrative of God’s redeeming presence in the creation.
Does this preference for “Spirit” over localized theophany mediated by elements of the creation constitute a denial of material creation’s significance in and for the redeeming work of God? Not so, we think, in view of our confession that the Spirit of God is “the Lord, the giver of life,” as we confess in our statement of faith in the Triune God. The Spirit of God has actually already entered Luke’s narrative, announced early on by the angel Gabriel to Mary as an “overshadowing” “power of the most High,” and, as we have noted above, descending on Jesus in his baptism “in bodily form like a dove” (thus, comments Luke Timothy Johnson, does Luke “by such subtle signals . . connect parts of his story” (Johnson, p. 38). Embodiment in creation is still God’s way to creation’s liberation. Beginning with the narrative of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness on the First Sunday in Lent, the Spirit will be Jesus’ constant companion on his way to the cross. Indeed, the Spirit will come to have decisive significance in the narrative that will now take us through the Seasons of Lent and Easter to the great explosion of Pentecost that will bear God’s redeeming power out into all creation.