March 6, 2011
Today is the Last Sunday of Epiphany. It’s been a long season of Epiphany, almost two months. Christmas is nothing more than a faint memory and if we were in a different part of the country, spring would be well on its way. The season of Epiphany always begins with the story of Jesus’ baptism by John. It always ends here, with the story of the Transfiguration. In between those two, we hear stories of Jesus Christ’s appearances to his disciples and to us. This Sunday provides us with another opportunity to experience and try to understand the glory of Christ, even as we look forward to Lent with its very different emphasis.
I suspect that the reason we read the story of the Transfiguration on the Last Sunday after Epiphany is in order to give us a little boost as we head into Lent. And if ever people needed a boost, we do. Most of us continue to be consumed by the ongoing budget crisis and the protests. Most of us continue to worry about what is going to happen down the road, to our jobs, our families, our state. We are in no mood to celebrate anything. We feel very unlike the disciples may have felt when they experienced what Matthew described in today’s Gospel.
This is a strange, otherworldly story. We call it the Transfiguration, when Jesus appears with Elijah and Moses, his face shining with the glory of God. Apart from the resurrection itself, there may be no story in the gospels more unbelievable than this one. It defies all human comprehension.
The reading from Exodus may help us understand better what the Gospel story is about. We are thrown into the middle of the lengthy narrative relating Israel’s encounter with God at Sinai. It was here that Yahweh made a covenant with the whole Israelite people; it was here that they received from God the Ten Commandments and the rest of the law; it was here that Aaron and the others fashioned and worshiped a golden calf while Moses was on top of the mountain in the presence of God. Indeed, our reading brings us to the heart of the story. The Israelites have already received the Ten Commandments verbally, but now Moses scales the mountain to receive them written on tablets of stone. The text tells us that he was there six days, while the glory of Yahweh settled on the mountain, and on the seventh day, God spoke to Moses.
All of these elements recur in the gospel reading from Matthew. We are given a time frame—six days after Peter made his confession that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus, with Peter, James, and John, ascended the mountain, and there Jesus was transfigured. Appearing with Moses and Elijah, his face shone with the glory of God.
Matthew’s version of the Transfiguration is meant to put us in mind of that earlier mountaintop experience. Matthew intends for us to see this event in light of the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, and also to interpret the events at Mt. Sinai in light of the appearance of Jesus Christ.
Matthew wants us to make the connection between Moses and Jesus, between Mount Sinai and the Mount of the Transfiguration, between the glory that surrounded Moses and the glory that came down on Jesus Christ that day. But there is another set of resonances that Matthew wants to make clear. When Jesus was baptized, a voice from heaven announced, “This is my beloved Son.” Now, at the Transfiguration, a voice again comes from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son.”
It is that voice, heard by the disciples for the first time that Matthew uses as the cause of the disciples’ fear. They had not heard it at Jesus’ baptism, they were not there, and even if they knew Jesus was the Son of God—after all, Peter had already made his confession—the words from heaven confirming it brought terror into their hearts. But something else happened, too.
In the midst of their fear, when they had fallen on the ground, Jesus came to them. It’s one of those moments in the gospel that we might pass over with little notice, but in fact, it is something that is full of meaning because it is something we actually see rarely in the gospels. Usually, of course, it is the disciples who come to Jesus. In John, Jesus called the disciples, by telling them, “Come and see.” In the Synoptics he asks them to follow him. And so they do. But this time, Jesus comes to them. And in that gesture, two things happen. Their fear goes away, and the miraculous event comes to an end. They go down the mountain, and return to the journey that will take them to Jerusalem, and to the cross.
S. Teresa of Avila, that great sixteenth century Spanish mystic, wrote with great profundity and some humor about prayer. She knew both about the heights of mystical experience when she was united with God, and times when God seemed remote from her, times when she could not feel his presence and could not speak to him. She called those times, dryness. Her close companion St. John of the Cross, wrote of the dark night of the soul, when he lost all sense of God’s presence. We all know of such times, times when our faith is nothing more than a distant memory, times when we despair of the existence of God, wonder whether we will ever again feel the presence of Jesus Christ in our hearts. But most of us also have had mountaintop experiences. Perhaps we didn’t see Jesus walking with Moses and Elijah basking in glorious light, but we have had experiences when we felt his presence certainly and completely.
Such experiences never last. They are fleeting and they often leave us thirsting for more and trying to relive them. Like the disciples and Jesus, like Moses too, who when he came down from the mountain, saw the Israelites dancing around a golden calf, we too, need to come down from the mountain and continue our journey. Like Jesus and the disciples, our journey takes us toward Jerusalem and the passion. The mountain of the Transfiguration will be at our back as we look forward to Good Friday and the cross.
There’s a tendency in our religious culture to emphasize joy and celebration. There’s certainly a place for that. But there is also a place in our faith for other emotions, other experiences. Teresa learned from her experiences of dryness, John saw the dark night of the soul as one stage in his relationship with God. The coming of Ash Wednesday and Lent offers us the opportunity to explore new depths in our relationship with God, to experience Christ in new and unsettling ways. But whatever happens in the coming season of Lent, or even in those little Lents in our own lives, times when we lose sight of the joy of life in Christ, we can always remember that like the disciples, the mount of transfiguration is at our back, and on the other side of the cross is the resurrection. Thanks be to God.