Readings for Transfiguration Sunday (Last Sunday Before Lent) February 3, 2008 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

For the Lectionary and other reflections, check out Transfiguration - Last Epiphany A February 3, 2008 Textweek

Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; II Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

How do you understand the Transfiguration, and what is the gospel, the good news, that the narrative seeks to proclaim? What’s the importance of this story as holy scripture, as a teaching to us? One possibility is that Matthew is trying to make Jesus look good or even underlining the reality that Jesus is good and perhaps that’s as far as it needs to go for a Sunday School class of under-fives. As adults though, the narrative has got other qualities. It’s mysterious, it’s mystical, it somehow doesn’t appear to belong to this world, it’s not an experience in the everyday; it’s got a supernatural quality. And as we start to question the details that Matthew has crafted into the story then maybe we begin to explore, to release, to realise the good news that’s in it.

If we begin at verse one, it starts off, ‘Six days later’. Why did Matthew choose to start this narrative with ‘six days later’? We might then be drawn to, well what came before - six days later than what? And if we look to the preceding chapter, we’ll see that six days before this event, there was the feeding of the four thousand with seven loaves and a few small fish; not the feeding five thousand with five loaves and two fish, the feeding of the four thousand with seven loaves and a few small fish. And immediately after that there’s the commissioning of Peter, where Jesus says ‘And on this rock, I will build my church’: I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Matthew has placed this story in a very powerful setting: he’s placed it in a setting where Jesus has already been revealed.

So let’s go back further. Six days later: if we go back into the Hebrew scriptures - which would have been well-known, well-read and well-understood by Matthew’s first readers - if we go back into them what we’ll come across is the Exodus reading that was read this morning and that began with, ‘Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud.’ I wonder if this is the same six days? Has Matthew chosen the six days in order to make that connection? And as soon as we make that connection are we not then reminded of the creation stories of Genesis, the six days of creation? Moses went up to a mountain, and so the Transfiguration story also takes place on a mountain - these are both mountain-top experiences. If we read the Exodus story a bit further we find that Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights – that’s the same as the Flood narrative, the story of Noah, so perhaps this is a re-creation story. It’s also the forty days of Jesus in the wilderness and the forty days of our impending journey through Lent toward Easter. So we begin to glimpse the connections that the Gospel is seeking to introduce, and we’ve still only looked at the first half of the first verse. If we read the rest of it we find Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John. Very specific – ‘Jesus took with him three others’. No, he took with him Peter and James and his brother John. Why is Matthew so specific? And why only three of the twelve, and why these three? ‘Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus’ – another three are named, another three appear, three-on-three. Has Matthew deliberately sought to create a balance, is Matthew bringing equality into the encounter between humanity with divinity, and is that the essence of Transfiguration?

In verse 2, Jesus is transfigured: ‘his face shone like the sun’. If we read about what happened to Moses on the mountain in the cloud, when he came out, his face shone like the sun, so much so that he had to put a veil on it so that people could look at him. It’s a similar encounter.

‘And his clothes became dazzling white’. Now in our own personal life experience we might not know the fullness of the experience that Matthew was talking about, but I think each and every one of us has had moments of it. When have you shone like the sun? Think about it, think of moments where you can say ‘Yep’: you know when there’s that real sense of ‘Yep’ – when the furrows in here go and the creases here seem to part and the eyebrows soften? Your face just starts to lift a little bit and you’ve got that beaming sense. Think about moments in your life, think about moments in your life when you have been whiter than white. Most of us go through life in many many colours. Can you capture though, moments when you have shone like the sun, when you have been whiter than white? I can look in the mirror and surprise myself to think that face that looks back has had moments of being whiter than white. We all have had them, and momentarily we rejoiced in them. I wonder what we might learn about ourselves if we join the dots of those moments; I wonder what we might learn about ourselves if we appreciate them as glimpses of the divine?

The story unfolds and in verse 4, Peter wants to make three dwellings. What’s that about? Is he seeking to capture the moment? Is he seeking to be faithful to his commission and build a church on this rock? Or is it illustrative of the abiding presence of the divine – dwelling, here, with us, not there above us, here, grounded with us. Peter wants to make three dwellings, and yet within two verses of that the divine voice is heard and the three fall to the ground and were overcome by fear. It’s an amazing change – it’s as if the story was beautifully unfolding and now all of a sudden the divine voice is heard and the disciples fall in fear. Doesn’t that though, vividly capture the reality of the spiritual path for us? One minute we know and we welcome God abiding with us, one minute we’re moving into that place of shining, of whiteness, and the next we’ve fallen under the weight and force of worldly gravity, overcome with fear. Verse seven, ‘Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid". It is that coming and that touch and that saying, "Get up and do not be afraid" that we might seek in the wilderness of Lent.

The Feast of the Transfiguration and the mystical narrative that Matthew uses, provide us with a wonderful preparation for Lent. We might spend this week or maybe the time leading up to Ash Wednesday where we mark the beginning of Lent, seeking to position ourselves so that we might participate in the reality that Matthew presents to us: Jesus came, he touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." For most and for our culture, that would be a transfiguration, to find that reality.

Peter, in the second reading we heard today, has really got it: ‘We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain’. He doesn’t then repeat the fact that he fell to the ground in fear, but after contemplating the voice he heard he can say this: ‘You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.’ ‘I AM the bright morning star’ – that’s the divine voice. Peter, having got this experience, seeking to pass it on, says be attentive to it, ‘until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts’.

The journey through Lent is an opportunity for us to truly encounter the experience of Transfiguration. There’s a starting point, a finding of ourselves, our true selves, seeing ourselves, humanity, balanced with divinity, meeting one-on-one, meeting face to face, and if we can work with that through Lent, we may come to the understanding that Peter has. The day that dawns when the morning star rises in your hearts is not a remembrance day of a rising on a hill in a past era, but rather a dawning day, a present moment, a day of re-creation when the morning star, the divine, rises within your hearts.

We might be encouraged by the simplicity of the story and yet the complexity of what it contains, to just spend a little more time with the scriptures during Lent. The Lent material that’s been prepared has a look at some of the core stories within the scriptures and one of the things that we’ve included in the file is a writing book, a book to write in. Many will approach Lent with material to read –we do need to do that I think, we need to look beyond, we need to study the scriptures with some depth, but we also need to express ourselves, to find ourselves, to speak ourselves, to share ourselves, not to constantly read about the transformation of others - it becomes a distraction. To seek rather, the Transfiguration that is forever waiting to dawn within.

One simple exercise from today’s Gospel could be to draw three circles on a sheet of paper – Moses, Elijah and Jesus, what do they represent? Moses is the Law, the ‘what is’, the guiding forces that are now and here and in place, the forces that steer us, that guide us, that restrict us, the ‘what-is’ of life. Have a look at the Moses that you respond to within - my Moses, that part of me. Then move onto the next circle which is Elijah. Elijah is the prophet, the voice that speaks tomorrow into being. What is the voice that you’ve heard that describes the tomorrow that you look at from today? More importantly, what is your voice in creating tomorrow, for each us every word uttered is creative of. What is my voice for the creation of tomorrow? Then the third circle which is Jesus, the one that we all avoid because ‘ooh he’s so special’, the divine. What is the shape and the size of that circle within myself. Can I find, describe, be in touch with, the divine within? Take those circles with you into Lent. Hear, forever the divine coming, touching, asking you to arise and to not be afraid, to look toward a mountain-top experience in which you will shine, and know yourself as whiter than white.

The Lord be with you.
Peter Humphris