Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
Matthew 17:1-9 - link to NRSV text
If you've got one of these -- a book that has parallel passages (different versions of what seem to be pretty much the same story) from the four canonical gospels -- this would be a great week to break it out again. The story of Jesus' transfiguration appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and the outline of the story (unlike, say, the story of the woman anointing Jesus found in Mark 14:3-9 and par.) is largely similar. But each version of the Transfiguration has small differences that draw attention to themes that are particular emphases of the author of the gospel in which it appears. In Luke (as I've blogged about before), it's a choice word -- exodus, to be precise -- that swings it, making the story of the Transfiguration a powerful reminder of the parallels between what Jesus will accomplish in Jerusalem and what Moses accomplished for God's people in Egypt.
Matthew also has a choice word that plugs his telling of Jesus' transfiguration into something that's a major theme in that gospel: VISION.
It comes in verse 9 -- the place where our lectionary cuts off the reading, and the start of Matthew's explanation of the Transfiguration's significance in his story of Jesus. For Matthew, Jesus' transfiguration is a vision -- a prophetic vision for all of God's people, a vision that will birth countless other visions.
In one sense -- particularly from Peter's angle on the scene -- it's a vision of glory. It's a vision that inspires awe, as in Peter's addition of “if you wish” to his proposed plan to build three dwellings for the dazzling prophets. That dazzling glory is why there's good reason to call the story of the Transfiguration -- especially this telling or the story -- a kind of retrojection, a premature resurrection appearance.The God of Israel raising Jesus from the dead (it was expected by many, after all, that God would raise people from the dead, but it was supposed to be the RIGHTEOUS who were raised -- not to mention the strangeness of the timeframe in which God raised Jesus) was a final and undeniable vindication of Jesus' ministry; as shocking and seemingly impious as his behavior was, he really was functioning as an agent of the God of Israel. Jesus' transfiguration, and the bat qol, heavenly voice affirming that Jesus is indeed a son of the God of Israel, is in a sense a foretaste of the vindication in Jesus' resurrection.
In particular, and particularly in Matthew, the vindication places Jesus in the company of the prophets. That's a literal thing, of course, with the appearance of Moses and Elijah on the scene. This presentation of Jesus as a prophet is underscored by Jesus' transfigured clothing -- not regal purple, like the pretenders to the title of “Lord” who call themselves Caesars, nor like richly multi-colored robes worn by the Temple hierarchy and purchased with revenues from poor Israelites, but pure, simple white (a point made by Neyrey's Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew).
And then there's that one extraordinarily apt word to describe the Transfiguration as portrayed by Matthew: a vision. It's a vision of prophets in at least two senses (subjective and objective genitive, for grammar junkies). It's a vision of Moses and Elijah, and of Jesus in their company, Jesus as a continuation and perhaps a climax of the prophetic trajectory. But it's also a vision of the prophets in the sense that it is a vision claimed by God's people who recognize the Spirit's speech and action in the ministry of Jesus. Peter, the wavering disciple who gets it wrong at least as often as he gets it right, gets in this Sunday's gospel a glimpse of the vision that will make him a prophet too, on the day when the vision of Joel 2 becomes a reality at Pentecost.
But I also am talking about us as readers. As readers -- at least, if we read the whole of Matthew's explanation of this story's importance, rather than leaving off at verse 9 with the lectionary -- we get a glimpse in the Transfiguration of the power that will call God's people -- young and old, men and women -- as God's prophets. The story of the Transfiguration doesn't end with the dazzling glory around which Peter wants to build his tents, but the greater glory of the Son of Man appointed as God's judge of the nations choosing to submit to the Cross rather than strike out at those -- even, or perhaps especially, his tormentors -- he had come to save.
That's why this moment in Jesus' story -- a “special effects moment,” as I call it (can't help it -- I grew up too close to Hollywood) -- comes where it does in the story. I think for Peter, Jesus' transfiguration on the mountain, especially seen in hindsight after Pentecost, might have been anticlimactic in a way a little like the transfiguration at the end of the movie Shrek, the lights and the music underscoring all the more just how mundane -- and how sacred -- true love's true form is once the supernatural glow subsides, and we get down to the difficult and rewarding business of being together as we really are.
Jesus' transfiguration on the mountain gives us a vision of the glory we anticipate for the whole world once Jesus' redeeming work among us in complete -- and God knows we need to be people of vision to see the journey to its completion. But the speed with which that glory subsides on the mountain and our journeying with Jesus in what follows reminds us that the redemption of the world we anticipate is not just a distant hope of a light and a voice now beyond the clouds; it is here with us, to be seen and touched in service to those present with whom Jesus suffers, in love of those who embrace or scorn, in the fellowship of Christ's Body and the work of reconciliation with all whom God loves -- with all that God has made.
Thanks be to God!
It is, I think, a note that Jesus intentionally did not go there alone, that the transformative revelations of God are not ours to hold or experience alone, but to share, expanding the reach of God's grace through our own worlds.
Posted by: chris | Feb 3, 2008 3:34:21 PM