God, the Lord God, has spoken;
God's summons covers all the earth,
like the sun from its rising to its setting.
God has shone forth from Zion;
perfect in its beauty.
Gather to me my faithful ones;
the ones that make covenant with me by sacrifice.
The heavens declare God's righteousness
and proclaim, "God, the Lord God, is judge."
Psalm paraphrase from The Billabong, a lectionary worship resource by Jeff Shrowder, Uniting Church in Australia
2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Depending on how you structure the church's year of grace, opinions differ as to whether the Christmas season ends at the Day of Epiphany, at Jesus' Baptism, or at Jesus' Presentation in the Temple. But with Lent beginning next week on Ash Wednesday, without a doubt Transfiguration concludes seasons that specifically magnify Jesus as God incarnate and Jesus as light to the world. However, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Anglican churches observe Transfiguration on August 6th, and some Orthodox Christians on August 19th. The Roman Catholic calendar also schedules T-Fig on the Second Sunday in Lent. As we've seen, a happening in Jesus' life is a strong sit up and take notice when more than one gospel records it. All three synoptics that view Jesus' ministry in a similar way include Transfiguration:
• Mark 9:2-9
• Matthew 17:1-9
• Luke 9:28-36
Metamorphosis is the Greek word translated transfiguration; even if it's not in your daily vocabulary, you probably know metamorphoses from caterpillar to butterfly, a redecorated room, a transformed human life. It's essentially beyond (meta) the original shape, form, appearance or likeness (morphe), and strongly implies what people perceive with their senses.
In Matthew and Mark, six days later comes after Peter's confession of Jesus as the Christ of God. In Luke they've just celebrated Succoth, the Feast of Booths–Tabernacles–Tents when people re-enacted God's protection during the exodus (Leviticus 23:39-43). Those temporary structures provided shelter yet people remained somewhat exposed to nature, so it's possible Peter, James, and John imagined offering hospitality to Moses and Elijah because their memory of Succoth was fresh.
Scripture and our every days consistently reveal creation as the setting for God's activity. Mountains often were arenas of divine revelation; OT examples include Moses on Mount Sinai (also called Horeb), Ezekiel on Mount Horeb. The NT brings us Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and God's ultimate self-revelation in the cross of Mount Calvary.
In this literal mountaintop experience Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah, who represent Old Testament law and prophets. Particularly in Mark and in Luke, Jesus' journey to Jerusalem and to the cross is focused and incessant. In Mark, transfiguration comes after Jesus' first of three predictions of his death and resurrection (Mark 8:31). With Transfiguration so closely following foretelling his passion, death, and resurrection(!), the way of Jesus begins to take the shape of a cross. But also—as the four companions descended the mountain Jesus ordered them "to tell no one until the Son of Man [Human One] had risen from the dead." For those first disciples and for us as twenty-first century Jesus followers, a cruciform life that resists death-dealing temptations and accretions of consumerism, empire, and violence also forms us into Easter people who testify to God's power to bring new life out of death.
Traditional and valid interpretations of this transfiguration event include:
1. You can't stay on the mountaintop forever.
2. The party needs to end because you need to go back to the daily rhythm of life with its public witness out in the world.
3. You can't contain God or put "god in a box." Martin Luther talked about a domesticated god.
3. God is not a place god of a single particular locale; God is God of all places, all people, everywhere.
Like Jesus' Baptism a few weeks ago, the Transfiguration famously brings us a Trinitarian theophany, a simultaneous revelation/showing forth of all three persons of the godhead.
Listen to Jesus
For Transfiguration the voice (from the clouds, technically not "from heaven") charges us "listen to Jesus," not look at him, despite the resplendent glory and bling surrounding him. Listen to jesus, not to his antecedents Moses or Elijah, who didn't quite get everything right all the time. Ultimately we need to listen to and hear Jesus, the ultimate Word of God. "Listen to Jesus" and not to any other cultural, economic, consumerist, national, or ecclesiastical voice.
Unlike Advent that has become reflective and hope-filled rather than penitential, Lent remains a season to consider and repent of the countless ways all of us fall short of God's holy demands, to ponder our mortality as we anticipate the astonishment of Easter. Burying the alleluias in hymnody and prayer until Easter contributes to that somber mood.
Traditional Lenten practices include "giving up" something, often a favorite food like chocolate or desserts or eating meat—Meatless Monday extended to six weeks. People often "take up" something; pre-pandemic, service activities were super-popular. Food bank, clothing center, church food pantry, animal shelter, reading to kids, etc., all provide fulfillment for both giver and recipient. There are countless excellent Lenten devotional books, booklets, along with scriptural reading plans related to Lent's emphasis on Jesus and the written Word. At our church we're offering a special series on reading and discussing Mark's gospel together with a very small in-person group, two or three on Zoom.
Glancing backwards and looking forwards helps ground us in this here and now. You've heard "if you keep looking back, you won't see where you're going." But if you don't appreciate the past, you'll probably keep making the same mistakes and missteps.
• How do you interpret the appearance of Moses and Elijah with Jesus?
• Does this anticipation of Jesus' cross and resurrection inspire you? Lead to questions? Feel reassuring?
• How does God's "listen to Jesus" command relate to the church as a whole and to you as an individual member?
• How does the transfiguration story prepare you to journey through Lent?
• Or can you think of a better story to help get ready?
• Have you thought through your practices for Lent 2021?