Last Sunday after Epiphany – Transfiguration of Jesus
Exodus 24:12-18 Psalm 2
2 Peter 1.16-21 Matthew 17.1-9
19th February, 2023
Exactly one year ago, the Sunday celebrating the transfiguration of our Lord was marked by descent into warfare. The objective of the Russian president was to “demilitarise” and “denazify” the country of Ukraine. This war is ongoing. What we hear in the second psalm today gives us an impression of the wrathful Messiah for whom the people of Israel longed, the dominant image in the Hebrew Scripture of who God’s chosen king should be.1 This belligerence – this blatant supremacy – is what Jesus has cast aside.
In Matthew’s Gospel Peter, James and his brother John are called up to a high place, with Jesus. The mountain is significant. Both our Gospel reading and Old Testament reading have shown us this. Judy Fentress-Williams says that “in the ancient Near East, the mountain [was] considered a pillar of earth, holding the sky in place… the bridge between earth, the realm of humans, and the heavens, the realm of the gods. As such, a mountain [was] the place for a divine encounter.”2
At this point in the life of Jesus, the disciples had been through a lot. Six days prior, Jesus had warned his disciples that the he must go to Jerusalem, he must undergo the great suffering, the walk towards his own death. He asks Simon Peter, Who do you say that I am? Peter says, You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Forbid it, Lord, this must never happen to you.
In witnessing the transfiguration Peter sees the real and uncovered nature of the Divine in the face of his friend and teacher. He sees the outward manifestation of the reality of the God indwelling. After all this, Peter, the “rock upon which the church will be built”, the man who in his desperation is told, “you are a stumbling-block to me”, Peter in this glorious vision may have found a moment he can hold. In the unfolding of the heinous proposition of his teacher’s death, it may be Peter’s hope to waylay, to postpone, the coming thunder of events, and to harvest Jesus’ blessing. “If you wish,” Peter says, “let us make three tents, three dwellings”. Here is Moses, the receiver of the tablets of stone, the receiver of the Law. Here is Elijah, the prophet. Here are the representations of the leaders of the Hebrew people, most favoured by God.3
Here is Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.
Peter can only hold this moment like moonshine in his hands. To endeavour to mark this witness is to look into the white heat of the bright cloud and yearn for concession. Before Peter has even finished speaking, the knowledge of the one who is Beloved is made clear. “This is my Son. Listen to him.” Is there no other way to lay bare the mission of recognition than by the metamorphosis – the literal Greek for the transfiguration – of Jesus’ face, or the devouring fire of the Exodus chronicle, the disfigured spectacle that the people of Israel would have seen as the Lord with Moses?
The request of Peter, eyewitness of Jesus’ majesty from the second epistle, was met with not with admonishment or bemusement, but steadfast and consistent compassion. One scholar reminds us that writer and theologian C. S. Lewis writes this encouragement from Aslan in The Silver Chair: “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly. I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearance. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.”4
The transfiguration narrative holds echoes of the Exodus mountain and the word of God made manifest in the covenantal relationship with the Israelite people walking in the wilderness, but it exists in the scene of the resurrection, too. In Matthew’s resurrection scene, the women encounter with the resurrection Angel of the tomb, whose appearance is like lightning. The angel says, “Do not be afraid.” Then it is Jesus who addresses his frightened friends with, “Do not be afraid.” On the mountain at the transfiguration of Jesus, Peter, James and John fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” Perhaps this is what we should remember, being spoken to clearly on the mountain, where the air is clear.
God, with us.
The mark of being an eyewitness to events in Scripture is important. Though its authorship is disputed, the second epistle of Peter stands as a testament to the weight given to having actually been in the presence of Jesus, and to have seen the literal bringing to light of his face in such a scene as the transfiguration. What would our own precious, creaturely lives mean if we remember that we are eyewitnesses to the presence of Christ in each other? Our lives of discipleship – and implicit in that the vocation of all who are baptised – mean that we are custodians of each other’s welfare, and stewards of a gentle kingdom. However, the Christ who is always turned towards us in each other may not look as we expect, when we meet him here.
In Matthew’s account of the transfiguration the blinding clarity of God’s gaze on earth through the person of Jesus Christ is like the sun, blinding and alive. It is too hot to gaze upon. May we be, as the second letter of Peter exhorts us, attentive to the witness of the Beloved revealed in us – as to a lamp shining in a dark place – until the day dawns and the morning star rises. This “divine lure” of God,5 our engagement in our lives as lived out with each other over the coming time of Lent can be a period of recasting; a changing of form. There may be an opening to approach those deeply hurt pieces of us that seek to garner power to survive, and of seeking instead to strengthen meaningful relationships accumulated only through our slow time together. By recognising the Christ we see in one another, our witness to a God who loves us into and through our being is lived out in the neighbourhood of the people whom we see, hear and hold in companionship. If the air has thickened and our path is not clear, the signs of the complexion of God are what we may need to remind one another of our gentle dealings with one another. This complexion of God – the majesty of mercy – may be embedded in a guise, or an other, we may not recognise. Our refusal to be confused about what we have learned by heart on the mountain is when we may be unafraid. This is the possibility of what we are looking for when we are together.
The recognition of those parts of contention and hostility within ourselves, and what we might hold up to the gentle gaze of others, is the way of the long road that Christ will always meet us on. This gentleness after the phenomenon of transfiguration, this full-faced witness to the direction Jesus will walk towards Jerusalem and the cross, is what we might hold in this transitional time between the unveiling of the nature of God, and the Lenten call to examine those things in us which no longer serve peace or ease. Do not be afraid. At this time of preparation for Lent, may we be turned towards the blinding clarity of God. May we be eyewitnesses to the desire of the God who would see each life of creation lived out under the recognition of the gentle Christ among us.
1 John D. Rohrs, “Psalm 2” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A, vol. 1, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 433.
2 Judy Fentress-Williams, “Exodus 24:12-18” in FOTW, 437.
3 Susan B. W. Johnson, “Matthew 17:1-13” in Feasting on the Gospels, ed. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, Matthew, vol. 2, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 64.
4 C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York: HarperCollins, 1981): 25-26, quoted in Maryetta Madeleine Anschutz, “Matthew 17:1-9” in FOTW, Year A, vol. 1, p.78.
5 Stephen Pickard, Seeking the Church: An Introduction to Ecclesiology. (London, UK: SCM Press, 2012), 238.