Thursday, February 28, 2019
March 3, Transfiguration; What We See: The New Human
Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:2, Luke 9:28-43a
Do you believe this story? Do you believe that his clothes lit up? Not just glowing, not phosphorescent, but dazzling, like lightning. Did his body become electric? Is it possible? Of course it was impossible, which is the point! It’s an anomaly, a singularity. St. Luke reports it as a mystery.
The transfiguration is reported by two other gospels, and though they agree on the core of the story, their reports have subtle differences. In order to make sense of St. Luke’s details we look in literary terms at his Gospel as a whole, with his distinctive themes. His Gospel is the most humane, with the most human interest, and one of his themes is the new humanity that Jesus is the founder of, a new generation of human beings of which Jesus is the firstborn, the people of the resurrection.
In terms of the literary structure of St. Luke, the transfiguration looks both forward and backward—it anticipates Jesus’ resurrection and is the confirmation of his baptism. When Our Lord was baptized, down there in the Jordan valley, below sea level, the lowest point in the land-mass of Asia, he heard God’s voice directly, for the first time, “You are my son, my beloved, in you I am well-pleased.” And now up here, for only the second time, on the highest point in Palestine he hears that voice again, “This is my son, my elected, listen to him.” The only two times that he hears God’s voice in the Gospel of St. Luke. So this is the confirmation of his baptism.
And it’s the anticipation of his resurrection. Fifteen chapters later, on Easter morning, there are two men standing at the empty tomb. St. Luke describes their robes as “dazzling” white, with the same word for Jesus’ dazzling clothing up on the mountain. St. Luke specifically calls them “men,” not angels as in the other gospels. They are people like us, but on the other side of death, like the white-robed martyrs in the Book of Revelations. They wear baptismal robes, the ordinary garments of the resurrected citizens of the Kingdom of God. They dazzle because they live already in the future, full of light, the future visible in Jesus on the mountain, the firstborn of the new humanity. St. Luke does not call this a transfiguration, as the other gospels do, but a change, a transformation.
St. Luke is the only one to tell us what Moses and Elijah were talking about. They were speaking of his departure. The Greek word is “exodus.” Of which Moses was the expert! Our translators missed the obvious, which even Peter did not, for all his confusion, as the booths he suggested were from the Feast of Booths, when Jews remember the Exodus and their years of wandering in the desert. Peter would have made them from the branches and foliage around them. But then the cloud overshadowed them like the cloud of Glory on Mount Sinai, and the disciples were terrified.
Moses was the prophet of the beginning, and Elijah was the prophet of the end. I’m guessing that Moses spoke of how to get there, and Elijah spoke of what would be there when he got there. I’m guessing that Elijah spoke from experience of how Jesus would feel alone, even while among his people, and Moses spoke from experience of how Jesus must end alone, just him and God.
Which the second half of our lesson confirms. He comes down the mountain and he walks into this tableau of a suffering son and a suffering father, and his disciples all standing around with their mouth full of teeth, looking silly and feeling worse. “We couldn’t do anything.” Our Lord can see in this tableau an image of his own impending experience. Himself the son, the son of God, seized and abused by the demonic hands of death, and his Father watching on and suffering with him, just him and God, just him alone. The dark side of the glory that he had just experienced.
Of course he was upset. It was a burden for the Son of Man to be the Son of God. That’s another of St. Luke’s themes—the interplay of the two titles of Jesus: Son of God and Son of Man. Both of these titles are lit up in the Transfiguration. But in Luke’s account the emphasis is more on the Son of Man. What Jesus is for us, as he is one of us, the firstborn of our new humanity.
My message for you today is that this vision on the mountain is an image of your own illumination and your own transformation. You too will be changed. Not a different face, but a different look on your face. Not to become divine, not an angel, but a human being who can fully bear God’s image, able to reflect the light of God upon your face without diminution, and to generate the light of God without distortion. You are a member of the new humanity, a new mind, a new obedience.
St. Paul encourages us in our epistle, in verse 18: And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of our Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is working your transformation. We do not finish it ourselves. God finishes it in our death and resurrection. But already in this life it begins for us. The Lordship of Jesus provides the algorithm, and the Spirit is the catalyst. And you have seen examples of it happening, including persons in this congregation.
Do you consider this transformation desirable? Or that it’s even possible? Do you believe that people can change? Or do they basically stay the same? Are we compelled to go through life being driven by our histories? We know that cultures change. We know that nations can be transformed. Indeed, the Bible considers it the will of God that the ethics of the Torah and the Gospel should gradually transform the nations. But what about individuals? What about you?
I believe that I am being transformed. Slowly and with fits and starts. I look back with some embarrassment at my life and I shake my head at my history, and though my remorse is not a proof of real transformation it is a sign of it. There’s always repentance in transformation, and often a plea for help. Transformation requires something from the outside, a catalyst, an algorithm, a power and an influence that is external to yourself. Neither internal evolution nor spontaneous generation make for transformation. You cannot do it on your own. That’s a judgment, but it is also liberating.
You must first pass through your own exodus. The God of Moses did not bring the children of Israel straight into the Promised Land. They had first to be transformed from a rabble of resistant slaves into a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, which took the desert, the diet of manna, and the fiery serpents. First they had to go through suffering, the suffering of pain, humility, and repentance.
God does not send the suffering, it’s just part of creaturely life. Nor does God get you out of your suffering—God gets you through your suffering. God goes with you through your suffering, just as God went along with Israel during those forty years in the desert. And God was transformed too, not by any change in God, but by the transformation of their capacity to know God and experience God, and to learn God’s love. You transform your image of God in order to transform yourself.
You have some healing, but not complete. You have more joy, but also deeper grief. You fear people less because you fear God more, and you learn the fear of God that comes with love. You are more loving, more ethical, and therefore more humble and more vulnerable, but also spiritually more powerful. The algorithm is the Lordship of Jesus and the catalyst is the Holy Spirit.
You cannot undo your history, you cannot remake your body and you cannot avoid your grief. You will contend with your history and your body and your grief until you are released in death, and transformation takes maintenance. You need the prayers and the hymns and the sacraments.
Your transformation will always be something of a mystery to yourself. Yes, it is a fact, as certain as your baptism, but you will never fully comprehend it. You give up some part of it to others, to those who love you and confirm you, to God and the community. They had to tell Moses his face was shining, he didn’t know it. You get your inner light from sources outside you. But at the same time, you are already transformed in the way that you handle your history and your body and your grief, your weekly converting your tragedy into comedy. The laughter is the laughter of humility and love.
Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.