The Vision of Jesus' Transfiguration, The Transfiguration - 2007

August 6, 2007

The vision of Jesus’ transfiguration occurs in all three synoptic gospels. In the Sunday lectionary, we get one of these versions on the last Sunday of Epiphany each year before we go into Lent. We are given Luke’s version every year on this day, the Feast of the Transfiguration.

Liturgically, the vision comes embedded in different readings from Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament epistles, according to the lectionary cycle. There are even two different collects available to us. As we turn toward Ash Wednesday and Lent, the collect for the last Sunday of Epiphany prays that “we, beholding by faith the light of [Christ’s] countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross.” For the Feast of the Transfiguration, we have a different collect, based on an older prayer composed for the 1892 revision of the American Prayer Book. It precisely echoes Luke’s reading, and emphasizes a contemplative appropriation of the scene by focusing on its visual impact:

“O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured in raiment white and glistening: mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty.”

In the reading from Exodus, Moses comes down from the mountain after his forty days of meeting with God. For the second time, Moses is bringing to the people of God the Ten Commandments that summarize of God so vividly Torah, the divine blueprint for human life in God’s world that embodies God’s covenant with his people. The narrative records that Moses’ face was visibly transformed, reflecting the radiance that people were afraid to come near him. Moses felt impelled to cover his face with a veil.

In Luke’s version of the Transfiguration, Jesus goes with Peter, James, and John to an unidentified mountain to pray. As Jesus prays, he is surrounded and enveloped by a radiant light. The figures of Moses and Elijah, representing Torah and the prophets, appear in the radiance with him and talk to him about his upcoming departure from Jerusalem.

The three disciples can see this vision of glory, though Luke is careful to suggest they are somewhat overcome by the sight, as befits any human being in God’s presence. But either they cannot hear or they do not grasp the significance of Moses and Elijah talking about Jesus’ “exodus,” which is Greek for “departure.” We are obviously intended to recognize that the discourse refers to Jesus’ forthcoming crucifixion. Missing this point entirely, Peter suggests making three cairns to commemorate the event.As he speaks a very large cloud enwraps them all and – as in the much earlier scene of Jesus’ baptism – the vision ends with the thunderous sound of God’s voice announcing, “This is my Son, my Chosen.”

In Luke’s gospel, the scene of Jesus’ transfiguration is located between the confession of Peter that Jesus is the Messiah of God, which had taken place eight days previously, and a story about Jesus and his followers meeting a man whose son was tragically possessed by demons. The man indicates that he had already begged some of Jesus’ followers to heal his son, but they were unable to do so. The way Luke tells it, Jesus immediately turns on his followers and yells at them, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I live with you and bear with you!”

While the bright shining glory of the Transfiguration draws attention to Jesus’ identity as God’s chosen and beloved, it also represents something that, in terms of the narrative, has not actually happened yet: the glory of Jesus’ resurrection. The way Luke stages the vision, therefore, reveals his own perspective on the gospel story, given that his Book One: Gospel illuminates his Book Two: Acts of The Apostles. From Luke’s perspective, the full glory of the church’s identity in every faithless and perverse generation has yet to be revealed, just as Jesus’ own glorious identity is fully revealed only in the resurrection.

Perspective, in fact, matters a good deal as we look at the Transfiguration. What we see in Jesus of Nazareth is sometimes a matter of the realities we allow ourselves to see. As the poet T.S. Eliot said, “humankind cannot bear much reality.”

Sometimes, what we see in Jesus is a function of what we are ready to see in him. Peter was ready to see an event he understood only in terms of the past as it impacts the present, and so he naturally thought in terms of commemorating the event of the Transfiguration. He was not ready to understand that the transfiguring of Jesus on the mountain is something that he could appropriate as a living and transformative power in his own life.

The glory of our own identities is that, through baptism, we are freed in Christ to be the beloved sons and daughters of God. That glory can manifest, or not, in the way we live. When we allow the grace of Torah to be embodied in our relationships, and in every political and economic aspect of our societies, we show forth God’s transfiguring glory.

When we persistently pray, speak, and act for justice and peace on earth, we mirror and reflect the radiance of God’s presence among humankind. The fullness of that glory cannot yet be seen or known, but under the bright light of the Transfiguration, we know that we are created and called to move ceaselessly from glory into glory. May it be so.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Christopher Sikkema