February 19, 2023
15A Last Sunday after Epiphany
Six days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Matthew 17:1-9
Among the most difficult moments in life, are those moments of decision that we recognize as being fraught with negative consequences with regards to understanding, acceptance, and approval. If we choose as those around us expect us to choose – life remains reasonably safe. But if we have ever come to a crossroads in our life and have decided to take a path that the world around us did not expect, understand, or value, then we know what it means to live life very much at risk.
To the extent that we know and have allowed ourselves this experience, we can connect, at a very profound level, with the Jesus who today is imaged before us as the Transfigured One.
Jesus is nearing the end of His ministry. Just one week before, at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus put himself to the test of human recognition. He put the hard question to his disciples. “Who do you say that I am?” After a few futile attempts by several of them to identify Him as one of the great prophets returned from the dead, Peter, musters the courage to blurt out his confession of faith, “You are the Messiah! The Christ! The Son of the Living God!”
This was the single most powerful identification that could be ascribed to Jesus. It was Peter saying, “You are the one for whom the world has been waiting since its creation. You are the one in whom the Patriarchs hoped. You are the one whose coming, the prophets foretold. You are the one for whom the people have longed, yearned, and desired. You are the promised one and as I gaze upon you, I believe, that in You, the promise has been fulfilled.”
Jesus asks the hard question and gets the right answer. But the very recognition of His identity, immediately puts Jesus in the crucible. Every Jew, including Jesus Himself, had been taught from the earliest days to conceive the Messiah in terms of victory, triumph, glory, conquest, and power. But from the first moments of His own struggle to come to terms with who He was, Jesus was having the greatest difficulty squaring these expectations with the person, and the Son of God, He was discerning Himself to be. Yes, He was the Messiah. But He was not the Messiah the people expected or wanted.
Having gained human recognition of His identity, Jesus now puts Himself to the test of divine affirmation. Jesus had to be sure that the way He had deliberately chosen was indeed the Father’s will.
First, the end of this way was death, and if the end of any course is death, then a person must be very sure that it is the only way.
Second, the negative reaction of Peter to the proposal of his suffering and death, must have sharply reminded Jesus that the course He was following was a flat contradiction of all accepted Jewish messianic hopes, dreams, and expectations. So, Jesus needed to be sure, what it was that His Father wanted of Him.
Jesus goes up the mountain to take counsel with His Father. If His Father approved, the criticism and the opposition of men and women were as less than nothing. This is the essence of that striking, mystic, and mythical story in the life of Jesus that is presented in the gospel as the Transfiguration.
In the story of the Hebrews, mountain tops were always pictured as being a place where God would reveal Himself. It was on Mount Sinai, in a bush that burned but was not consumed, that Moses received the Law from God. It was on Mount Horeb that Elijah had his revelation of the God who was not in the wind, and not in the earthquake, but in the still small voice within him. And it was to Mount Hermon that Jesus went to meet His Father.
Was the Father there for Jesus? The cloud assures us that God indeed was there. The cloud had always been an iconic testament to God’s presence. In the desert it was the cloud that led the people through the wilderness. After the tabernacle was built, a cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. On Sinai the Lord descended in a cloud to give Moses the Law. We find the numinous cloud at the dedication of Solomon’s temple. Yes, the mountain top is the place of God, and the cloud bears witness to His presence.
Appearing with Jesus are Moses, the supreme lawgiver, and Elijah, the supreme prophet. They encourage Jesus to go on. It is as if they say to Him: “It is You who are right, and it is the popular teachers who are wrong; it is you who are the fulfillment of all that the law says and all that the prophets foretold. The real fulfillment will not come though the popular idea of might and power but in your way of vulnerable, sacrificial, cruciform love”.
Moses and Elijah speak to Jesus about the departure or Exodus, He was to accomplish in Jerusalem. It was as if they said, “Your exodus will lead, by way of the cross, to the promised land.” But the supreme moment on the mountain top was the voice, “You are my beloved. I am well please with you”. Jesus then advanced both to death and to glory.
Are not our lives punctuated with Transfiguration moments? It is the Father’s will that each of us would palpably experience the glory of His affirming presence, with some frequency, as we move from birth to death.
Saint Irenaeus said, “The Glory of God is the human person who is fully alive”. Transfiguration describes the experience of Jesus as being iridescent with the life and vitality of God. While captured by the sacred writers as a miraculous moment, it is probably more properly understood as His ordinary and ongoing experience, with an invitation that we enjoy it as our ongoing experience.
Transfiguration can serve as a descriptor for any moment in each of our lives in which God’s glory is more obviously manifest both within us and before our eyes. Those moments in our lives when we are so fully alive, that we too become iridescent with the life of God though the presence of His Spirit, or that we behold that divine presence in others.
This week the fifty-six-year-old bishop of Matagalpa, Nicaragua, was sentenced to 26 years in prison because he had the audacity of calling out the government of Daniel Ortega for its murderous violation of human rights and offenses against justice. As he stood before the sentencing judges, Bishop Rolando Álvarez was iridescent with the presence of God. This week Lamar Johnson was released from a Missouri prison after three decades of wrongful imprisonment. When asked about his being angry, he said, with the most radient and sincere smile on this face, that to be angry would only serve to continue his imprisonment.
As resurrection after death is not just for Jesus, so too, Transfiguration before death is not just for Jesus. If we would be Risen with Him, then must we not also be Transfigured with Him?
Is it not our sublime vocation to manifest the very presence of the invisible, ever living, and ever-loving God on whatever mountaintop or in whatever valley bottom we find ourselves? Is it not our calling to manifest that wondrous presence when the moment is light and when the moment is heavy, when there is joy and when there is sadness, when there is hope and when there appears to be no reason to hope, at the peak of ecstasy and across the threshold of suffering and pain?
As we search back across the expanse of our lives, we might well begin to identify the theophanies with which each of us have been gifted. For each of us the encounter with the numinous and affirming, divine mystery will be different and peculiar to our own life, circumstance, and experience.
In the darkness of the present moment, in which the ugly reality of police brutality is once again in the headlines; in which mass shootings are becoming an almost daily occurrence, and no action is taken to ban assault weapons, even though 70 percent of those living in this would-be democracy would have it so; in which 43,000 thousand Turks and Serbs lay buried in tombs of rubble, and countless grieving survivors, freeze and starve to death because a world, that has the means to do so, has not risen to the challenge of making the critical difference; in which a narcissistic sociopath, whose soul has been seized by the deceitful demon that disfigures him, begins a second year of slaughtering countless innocent Ukrainians; in which a gaggle of FOX talking heads, who knowingly advanced a lie about election fraud, seek to defend their deceit, with an appeal to the right of free speech. When did lying become a right? Do we not need to summon up those theophanies with which we have been gifted and which have transfigured our lives? Do we not need to remember, and draw strength and hope from moments of glory?
They can serve and empower us in every vale of tears, to own as our own, the spirit with which we have been gifted, so that we may be servants of God’s love and mercy, and prophets giving voice to His truth, in an otherwise broken, deceitful, and fearful world. Transfigured people, can, in the words of Dorothy Day, “Live the truth as if the truth were true”.
February 19, 2023