The Feast of the Transfiguration [Luke 9.28-36] (Common Lectionary, Unrevised)

Copyright (C) 1998 by Abigail Ann Young

In dealing with the Bible, we customarily rely on generalisations to guide us, especially those which compare and contrast the two testaments. For example, we say that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath, of judgement and vengeance, while the God of the New Testament is a God of mercy and love. This captures a certain truth about the messages of each part of the Bible, but does justice to neither. It is not difficult to think of incidents from the lives of patriarchs and prophets or from the Psalms which show the love and mercy of God; and it is a New Testament author who says of God that 'before him no creature is hidden but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.' Another of these convenient, but misleading, generalisations is that the Old Testament emphasizes the transcendence of God, God's Otherness and Aboveness in comparison to the world God made, while the New Testament emphasizes God's immanence, his presence among us.

This seems like a pretty safe bet at first sight, for what else is the New Testament but the story of God's coming into God's creation and the consequences of God's life and death among us? It is difficult to get any more immanent than that. But consider this. Jesus may indeed have been, as we affirm in our faith, Emmanuel, God with us, but few of those who met him could see God in him directly. The disciples who spent so many long hours with him during his three years of ministry did not at once see in Jesus the human face of God. The glory was not immediately obvious. Clearly in real life, Jesus did not go about Galilee and Judaea equipped with special visual effects as brought to you by Cecil B DeMille and Franco Zeferelli's Jesus of Nazareth. It was left to the eyes of faith to discern the truth of his nature unaided.

Yet in two different passages, John (in the prologue to the fourth gospel) and Peter (in this morning's epistle) each speak of seeing Jesus' glory, his 'doxa,' a word normally used to describe the divine glory, the Shechinah which indwelt with Israel in the tabernacle. This is an extraordinary claim: even Moses had not seen God's glory directly on Sinai, according to Jewish tradition. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews had spoken of seeing in Jesus the reflection of God's 'doxa,' not the very glory itself. What is more, it's clear from both passages that this glory was seen not in some post-resurrection appearance or vision of the risen, ascended, and glorified Lord such as St Paul experienced, but during Jesus' earthly life. Such a claim at least fully bears out the New Testament's claim to present an immanent God. Nothing else in the gospel tradition except the Transfiguration offers a literal foundation for it and indeed today's epistle is a clear reference to the synoptic accounts of that event.

This year, the festival commemorating the Transfiguration falls on a Sunday and so we suspend our regular cycle of Trinity-tide services (accompanied by what Dorothy Sayers called the church's workaday green vestments, with readings that recount the disastrous story of decline in the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah and the day-by-day progress of Jesus' ministry of teaching and healing according to Luke) to celebrate. Fortunately for us in this year of Luke, the Transfiguration gospel comes from Luke, and is actually not that far removed from last Sunday's gospel. Like last Sunday's gospel, it too is fundamentally concerned with the disciples' reaction to Jesus at prayer. It is part of a common fund of information about Jesus' public ministry, of sayings, parables, and events, which Luke shares with Matthew and Mark. Here in Luke, the account of the Transfiguration comes not long before the long section (from Luke 9.51 to 19.28) narrating Jesus' last journey to Jerusalem, which contains many elements unique to Luke.

Let's look in more detail at the story in today's gospel. A small group of apostles, the executive committee composed of Peter and the sons of Zebedee, go apart on a mountain with Jesus while he prays. While they fight off their desire to sleep, natural if, as some modern commentators think, this happened at night, they had a visionary experience of Jesus quite different from the form in which they encountered him in their ordinary life together, robed in white and accompanied by two figures whom they identified as Moses and Elijah, with whom he was talking of his 'departure.' This is rather subtle wording on Luke's part, for in his account, as we have seen, Jesus is not simply preparing to depart upper Galilee for Judaea and Jerusalem, but to depart from this world altogether by his impending passion, death, resurrection, and ascension. The latter departure is one about which he might well go apart even from most of his disciples for prayer.

Moses and Elijah, two figures from Israel's heroic past shared, among other attributes, that they were believed to have been taken up in some mysterious fashion into the divine presence at the moment of their deaths. Elijah, if you remember the reading of several weeks ago, was taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire. Although Deuteronomy quite clearly narrates the death of Moses, popular thought gave him too a fate beyond that of ordinary men and women. For the three disciples to believe that they had seen those two men on the mountain was to associate it somehow with heaven itself, and indeed in the Old Testament tradition, theophanies, appearances by God to human beings like Moses and Elijah, often took place on mountains.

Peter, struck it would seem even more by these apparitions than by Jesus' appearance or by what he and his companions heard of what was to come, spoke up and suggests building three booths, one apiece for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, like those built for the harvest festival of Succoth, or Tabernacles (which has led many commentators to think the Transfiguration took place at the season of Succoth). The response is awesome: the mountain is surrounded by a cloud, from which the voice of God speaks in words similar to those at the baptism of Jesus, 'This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!' After this, Jesus appeared 'himself' again, so to speak, and all left the mountain together. Peter, James, and John said nothing about this at that time.

This is indeed a story unlike most others told about Jesus, at least on the surface, and it is not easy to understand what happened or why. But I think the context within the gospel can be a guide. Luke, like all the evangelists who recalled the transfiguration, locates it at about the same point in Jesus' life, about a week after Peter's confession that Jesus was the messiah and shortly before the final trip to Jerusalem. At first, nothing seems more disparate than these two events, Peter's confession and the transfiguration. In the earlier event, Jesus like a good teacher challenged the disciples not just to see who he was but to declare it. Peter declares that he is the Messiah of God but Jesus must then explain carefully just what kind of Messiah he is: 'The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.' Despite the hope of resurrection at the end, this is a conversation rooted in the here and now of their lives, indeed of our lives, in which the just often suffer and those who try to teach the will of God are misunderstood. If we factor in what Matthew and Luke, drawing upon their traditions, wrote about Peter's confession, then it appears that Jesus was not simply instructing them in the true nature of his messiah-hood but actively countering Peter's profound misunderstanding (which led him to rebuke Jesus when Jesus began to teach about his passion and death), a misunderstanding which Luke smoothed over.

The story of Jesus's transfiguration, too, turns on one of Peter's hasty misunderstandings. The theophany which follows his proposal is far from approving of his plan to start up a sort of hill-shrine of the three prophets! Instead the divine voice points the three disciples back to what their vision means, just as Jesus' correction of Peter earlier pointed him back to the real meaning of messiah-hood. But it does more than that; the voice the disciples heard did not stop with 'this is my Son, my Chosen.' It continued, 'listen to him.' This is what Peter (and, by implication, the others) had not done the previous week, at Caesarea Philippi, when they seemingly refused to believe that the messiah would have to suffer. This is what Peter, James, and John were not yet doing on the mountain of the Transfiguration, where they had just heard Jesus speak in prayer about his 'departure'; they were still hear ing what they wanted to hear, a triumphant Christ, without a Cross.

But the message is not simply for them, it is also for us, as individuals and as the Church. The Transfiguration offers those of us born too late to have known Jesus in his earthly life the same link as it did the disciples between that man, the so-called 'Jesus of history' about whom we read in the New Testament, and the risen, ascended, and glorified Lord whom we encounter in sacrament. But it also offers us a challenge: listen to him. Learn to discern his voice, and the true content of his mission and preaching, even about his nature; not what we want to hear. May God give us the gift of such listening. Amen.