OLD TESTAMENT: Exodus 34: 29-35
Read the Old Testament passage
According to tradition, the Book of Exodus is known as “the Second Book of Moses”. The major themes of Exodus are identified as liberation, law, covenant, and presence. The presence of God is exceedingly important. God’s presence is seen as life-giving glory being concretely present in the world. The assumption is that God yearns to be present, but that requires a community of generous faith, emptied of the worldly culture around it, which gives it best skills, disciplines, and goods for the housing of the holy.
Now…some background…in the understanding of this early community of faith, God was not to be seen. God was the great I AM, one whose name could not be said, one whose power could not be beheld, one whose presence could not be seen. (It is in some way a better way to think of God—“lost in wonder and awe”– than the way we often view God as a great vending machine ready to tend to all our needs! After all, it seems that it would be harder to take the great I AM for granted!) But here, if one saw God, one died…But here God was and here Moses was actually talking to God!
So Moses goes up the mountain. (Now remember too that for these ancient Israelites, the mountain was a source not only of grandeur, but also of divine revelation. Mountain tops were sacred places.) And there he has his encounter with God. Now keep in mind their understanding of seeing God. Their assumption would be that Moses was going to die. And so when Moses shows up bearing two giant tablets and shining like they had never seen before, they were afraid.
Well once Moses gets them calmed down and gathered around him, he tells them the story. He tells them of these great tablets, the sign of God’s covenant, the very foundation for who they are and what they will become. The truth is, there might be some question about whether or not Moses was actually shiny. The Hebrew word is queren, which often means “horn”. (Some scholars even surmise that Moses was so burned and scarred by this encounter with God that he appeared to have horns.) Either way, this tangible mark of God’s Presence may have just been too much. So Moses dons a veil, perhaps to protect the people and maybe so they would actually listen to what he had to say. So, in essence, he is hoping that the veil will somehow filter and aid understanding for the people. But he also understands that when he encounters God, he is called to remove all impediments that might exist. He is called to unveil himself completely before God.
The Hebrews understood that no one could see God and live. They were right. No one can see God and remain unchanged. We die to ourselves and emerge in the cloud. We, too, probably don’t want “all of God”. We’d rather control the way God enters and affects our lives, showing up when God’s Presence is needed or convenient. But remember the words of the Isaac Watts hymn: “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”
My soul, my life, my all—I think that would mean unveiled. Maybe Moses’ act of donning the veil was as much to show the people the difference between their life and an encounter with God. But, in case you missed it, remember what happened when Moses did fully encounter God. Remember that the sacred and the holy could not help but become part of him. It is true. One cannot encounter God without being utterly and profoundly changed forever, perhaps in some odd way even scarred. And sometimes that’s a lot for this world to take.
You will also notice that Moses did not just remove the veil before God but also before the people when he was teaching. He wanted them to encounter what he had, to see what he had, to become what he had become. Encounters with God are not solitary events. We are not changed by ourselves on the mountaintop; rather, we are transformed in community where we can see the face of God in each other. Religious encounter is a continual conversation between the Creator and the created. Otherwise, we might as well just put on a veil and go about our business.
- What does this passage mean for you?
- How would our understanding of God change if we thought of God as the “Great I AM”?
- What keeps us from realizing that God’s presence changes everything in our lives rather than merely affirming who we are?
- (OK…this is an odd question)…Do we really want as much of God as God is willing to share with us? Do we really want a God that is “so amazing, so divine” that a relationship with that God “demands my soul, my life, my all?”
- How veiled do we live our lives? What stands in the way of our “unveiling”?
NEW TESTAMENT: 2 Corinthians 3: 12-4:2
Read the Lectionary Epistle passage
This passage from the letter that we know of as Second Corinthians is actually more than likely part of a compilation of five or six letters that Paul wrote to the community at Corinth. And many of these writings are defending Paul’s theology and understanding of the Gospel against a band of “super-apostles” that have infiltrated the church and community. Paul tells the Corinthians over and over to remain faithful, to stay on track, so to speak and in this passage that we read, he uses the account from Exodus of Moses in the desert encountering God. It’s also one that can easily be construed into some sort of anti-Semitic statement as well. Without looking first at the Old Testament passage, one might take Moses’ act of veiling as some sort of act of deception before God. So taken out of context, there is a portrayal of Moses and the covenant given to him in a negative light. And yet, none of Paul’s writings have ever discounted the former writings. They just depicted that they weren’t yet fulfilled; in other words, that they weren’t complete. Paul contends that these writings alone cannot bring one to God.
And as Paul points out, the glory brought to Moses’ face was fleeting. Perhaps it was misunderstood. Perhaps the veil was a way of shielding glory from those who would not understand. For that matter, the donning of a veil by one who does not fully see can become a way of closing one’s eyes to the needs of the world, of creating for oneself an understanding of God as personal and private.
But for Paul, the coming of Christ equates to a removal of that veil, a more permanent expression of the glory of God and one that is inclusive of all. It instead opens Christ to the whole community. It is not discounting or dismissing the former things; it is clarifying and bringing them into permanence and a broader offering.
And as Paul says, we are all unveiled. We are mirrors of God’s mercy and grace. We are all changed, transformed by the grace of God through Jesus Christ. Perhaps Moses’ encounter could be considered just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, a precursor to show what we would all someday become. We all seek transformation, of course, but transformation comes through our relationships with both God and our brothers and sisters. We become what others see in us.
In a sermon on this passage, Richard Gribble tells this story:
One magnificent, moonlit night, a fisherman climbed the wall of a private estate to partake in the bounty of its fish-stocked pond. He moved with stealth and upon reaching the banks of the pond observed with keen awareness that there was no activity in the bungalow below. All the lights were out. With a sense of confidence, he envisioned his fishing needs taken care of for the full week. Thus, he cast his net into the pond making the light splash. The master of the house remarked to his wife from his deep stupor, “Did you hear a sound outside?” His wife remarked, “My dear, it sounded like a net falling into the water.” In seconds, the owner sprang out of the stupor and visualizing his pond completely devoid of fish yelled, “Thief! Thief!” The servants of the house, hearing the master yell, scrambled outside toward the pond. The fisherman gathered the net as swiftly as he tossed it and scrambled to find a safe hiding place. The workers’ voices were near and the fisherman’s desperation knew no bounds. His eyes caught a glimpse of a smoldering fire and he got an idea. He gathered some ash and rubbed it over his arms, body, and face. He quickly sat under the nearest tree in a posture of one in meditation. When the servants arrived at the scene and saw the man in meditation they asked for forgiveness and continued their search. Finally, they reported back to the owner telling him that there was only a sanyasin, a holy man, in the garden. The owner’s face lit up and asked to be taken to the site of the sanyasin. Upon seeing him, he was overjoyed and demanded that the holy man not be disturbed. The fisherman’s fear turned to joy and then to pride thinking how smart he was to outwit the entire household. He sat under the tree until the shades of dawn began to sweep across the night sky. As he was preparing to leave he saw a small procession of people approaching; they had heard of the holy man. Now he could not leave under any circumstance. These people had come from a neighboring village and with total devotion had brought offerings of food, fruit, silver, and gold to invoke the blessings of the holy man! At this very moment the fisherman realized that if by assuming the role of a holy man he had received so much respect and goodwill, how much more respect and goodwill would be received if he truly was a holy man. So the fisherman who was truly a thief turned in his net and became a true man of God. It might have been quite by accident, but the fisherman experienced conversion in his life. He was transformed from a thief into a holy man through the action of others. The love, respect, and deference demonstrated toward him changed his heart. He realized he had been deluding himself to think others might respect him for his wealth, but he came to realize he could be held in high esteem by demonstrating kindness and those qualities that label people as “holy.” (From “Transformed to Christ”, a sermon by Richard Gribble, available at http://www.sermonsuite.com/free.php?i=788032987&key=phUtka1qfKtdnmf8, accessed 4 February, 2012.)
- What does this passage mean for you?
- What does the concept of transformation mean for you?
- What gets in the way of your seeing that come to be in your own life?
GOSPEL: Luke 9: 28-36 (37-43)
The Greek for “transfigured” is, here, metamorphormai, or “to undergo a metamorphosis”. In our terms (think of a butterfly), that means a change in form or character. The writer of the Gospel known as Luke starts the story by saying that Jesus went up on the mountain to pray. But he took with him his friends. And it was there, there on the top of the mountain, there with his friends, that Jesus was changed. Jesus glows with a transcendent glory reserved only for heavenly beings, which implies that he belongs to the divine world. The Gospel writer depicts Jesus as being together with Moses and Elijah in a scene of transcendent glory, showing Jesus in continuity with the fulfillment of God’s work portrayed by the Old Testament.
It makes the point that the disciples were tired, indeed that they were “weighed down”. But they stayed awake. They probably thought that they were dreaming at first. I mean, really, you’re exhausted and filled with that thin mountain air and then you start seeing things that you can’t explain. Peter’s response seems odd to us, almost as if he misses the whole point. (And probably makes us a bit uncomfortable with our own reaction!) It sounds like he’s trying to control or contain the Christ. But keep in mind that it was a response from his Jewish understanding. He was offering lodging—a booth, a tent, a tabernacle—for the holy. But he needed only to listen. That is the proper response to such incredible holiness.
And then the cloud comes. It says that they were “overshadowed”, veiled, really, when you think about it. And of course they were terrified. I mean, remember, they were Jewish. They understood that if one saw God, he or she would die. And here they were. Something was happening—this thick cloud all around them. They couldn’t even see the ground below. And Jesus all lit up like nothing they ever say. Surely they were going to die. And then the voice…”This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him.” Sure, what else are we going to do?
And somewhere in the depiction, Moses and Elijah drop out of sight. Jesus is there alone. In Old Testament Hebrew understanding, the tabernacle was the place where God was. Here, this changes. Jesus stays with them alone. Jesus—not Moses, not Elijah–IS the tabernacle, the reality of God’s presence in the world. The disciples descend down the mountain into the world, full of pain and suffering and injustice. But God’s presence remains with us.
In the Old Testament passage that we read, Moses descended the mountain with the law; in the depiction of the Transfiguration of Christ, Jesus descends with his own life and body given unto all. Fred Craddock describes the account of the Transfiguration of Christ as “the shout heard round the world”, the glorious announcement of what happened in Bethlehem years before. It IS the final Epiphany.
It says, though, that the disciples descended from the mountain. That is the key. We are not called to some sort of removed piety. We must return to the world. The rest of the passage shows that there is work to be done. But it also says that they were silent about the whole thing. After all, really, what do you say after that? The Transfiguration leans directly into Lent. Jesus descends and walks toward Jerusalem. And the disciples go with him. The Transfiguration leads us to Lent and at the same time gives us a taste of Easter glory. There is something about this that would never have been understood until it was placed in the context of what was to come next. Jesus has gone onto Jerusalem. Our response must be to follow.
After a person is baptized in an Episcopal Church, there is a prayer said for the newly baptized, which concludes like this: “Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.” The gift of joy and wonder in all your works. We’ve lost many things over the years. Joy and wonder are two of them. It’s just so hard to conjure up wonder. As a parent, one of the parental goals I have for myself is to raise two girls with a sense of wonder. So, I take them to museums and cathedrals, and point out the intricacies and nuances of what they’re seeing. When I speak of God to them, I not only tell them that Jesus is their friend and with them all the time (which is good), but also that he made the sun, the moon and the stars. And manatee. And flamingos. And Cheetos. OK, I definitely leave out the Cheetos…
As a priest, I try and conjure up for the parish I serve similar awe of the power of God, the minute and amazing details of the scriptures, and the movement of the Holy Spirit through the history of humanity and the Church. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I don’t. I’ve had too many experiences of taking youth into a grand nave of a wondrous, storied, cathedral or abbey… only to find them more interested in looking at their shoes and incoming text messages. Those moments hurt my heart. We had a clergy day a few weeks back with Mike Gecan, the author of “Going Public.” He talked about going into his child’s Kindergarten class and seeing a bulletin board illustrating what the students wanted to learn in school that year. Most of the statements were like, “behave,” “learn to sit still,” “follow the rules,” “listen to the teacher better.”
One child said “I want to know why the ocean shines like fire.” Holy smoke. I mean HOLY smoke! Now that the kids mentions it… I want to know why the ocean shines like fire too. There’s a kid who has the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. We can say a lot about the Tranfiguration. And given it’s prevalent use in the lectionary from year to year, we get to say a lot about it. But, if there’s ever a “WOW” moment in Jesus’ earthly ministry, this is it. Jesus took his three chosen disciples up on a mountain to do many things. One of them, was to blow their sandals off. And, whatever shortcomings they have, and however paltry Peter’s words are, they at least do the appropriate thing and fall on their faces before the Presence of the Glory of God and His Son. This is an intimate encounter, for only a few, on an un-named mountaintop. And so, I have to believe that this isn’t just a historical tale of one of Jesus’ afternoon excursions, but is a model of Christian life. We are to look around and search for those places and events where God knocks our socks off. And we’re to fully soak in the WOW of the moment. And maybe even fall on our faces. It reminds us of God’s power and glory and splendor. And it reminds us of our appropriate, faithful, response: worship. And, once we experience wonder – and help others do the same – maybe we can put the incoming-text-message-machines down… and experience joy too. Why does Jesus shine like fire? Let’s see for ourselves, and invite others along. When is the last time you let God blow your socks off? (From “A Garden Path”, a blog by R.M.C. Morley, available at http://www.rmcmorley.com/a-garden-path/2011/02/last-epiphany-a-shining-like-fire.html, accessed 1 March, 2011.)
- What does this passage mean for you?
- What does this depiction of God’s presence mean to us?
- In what ways, then, should we see the presence of God, or Jesus, differently?
- What effect does that have on how we view our own practices of faith?
- Has there ever been a time when God “blew your socks off”?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
People only see what they are prepared to see. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
All over this magnificent world God calls us to extend [God’s] kingdom of shalom—peace and wholeness—of justice, of goodness, of compassion, of caring, or sharing, of laughter, of joy, of reconciliation. God is transfiguring the world right this very moment through us because God believes in us and because God loves us. What can separate us from the love of God? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. And as we share God’s love with our brothers and sisters, God’s other children, there is no tyrant who can resist us, no opposition that cannot be ended, no hunger that cannot be fed, no wound that cannot be healed, no hatred that cannot be turned into love, no dream that cannot be fulfilled. (Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream)
Change your ways, give yourself a fresh coat of paint, convert yourself. Do all this, and you’ll find the cross before it finds you. (Thomas A’ Kempis, The Imitation of Christ)
Let’s go up the mountain. Let’s go up to the place where the land meets the sky where the earth touches the heavens, to the place of meeting, to the place of mists, to the place of voices and conversations, to the place of listening:
O God, We open our eyes and we see Jesus, the months of ministry transfigured to a beam of light, the light of the world, your light. May your light shine upon us. We open our eyes and we see Moses and Elijah, your word restoring us, showing us the way, telling a story, your story, his story, our story. May your word speak to us. We open our eyes and we see mist, the cloud of your presence which assures us of all we do not know and that we do not need to fear that. Teach us to trust. We open our eyes and we see Peter’s constructions, his best plans, our best plans, our missing the point, our missing the way. Forgive our foolishness and sin.
We open our eyes and we see Jesus, not casting us off, but leading us down, leading us out – to ministry, to people. Your love endures forever. We open our ears and we hear your voice, ‘This is my beloved Son, listen to him!’ And we give you thanks. Amen
(Prayer by William Loader, 02/2001, available at http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/TransfigurationPrayer.htm, accessed 1 March, 2011)