Transfiguration

TransfigurationMarcelChomIntro

If you went on a holiday outside of the Netherlands, one of the things you notice coming from the Netherlands is the hills.  On those hills you see castles and churches, chapels and other dignified buildings.  Sometimes such places are especially used for pilgrimage, such as the Sacro Monte di Belmonte in Italy.  Thirteen chapels dedicated to the stations of the Cross are spaced along a devotional route leading to a final chapel dedicated to the way of the cross.

Today we also approach a sacred mountain, the mountain of transfiguration, and we will first too follow stations that give us the subject for our meditation.  Secondly, we will contemplate the Transfiguration in relation to the OT.  This will, thirdly, lead us to consider how Peter and John saw the Transfiguration and how we see His glory today.

(1) Stations to the Mountain

These subjects we find in the sequence in Luke’s Gospel which starts at the beginning of chapter 9 and finds it’s climax in the Transfiguration on the Mountain.

  1. Jesus sends out the Twelve Apostles to proclaim the Kingdom of God and gives them power over all demons (Luke 9:1-2 ESV).
  2. When the Apostles’ return we find Jesus speaking about the Kingdom of God and feeding the 5000, about which we read last week (Luke 9:10-17).
  3. Then we find Peter confessing that Jesus “is the Messiah of God.”
  4. Jesus then strictly warns them that “The Son of Man – a title for the Messiah – must suffer many things and be rejected , and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Luke 9:21-22 ESV)
  5. Those who will follow him will have to take part in that very same death and resurrection (Luke 9:23-25)
  6. He tells them at that moment that the Son of Man is coming in glory and that some here will see the kingdom of God (Luke 9:26-27 ESV).

These are themes which should be on our mind as we go up to the Mountain of Transfiguration: the setting up of the universal Kingdom of God, the death and resurrection of the Messiah, and the call to his disciples to partake in that death and resurrection.

(2) Transfiguration and the Old Testament

It is the same theme we find in the OT Reading of today.  In Daniel we see the Son of Man being given all authority in heaven and earth.  The prophecy of Daniel 7 is a typical description of how Jews in Jesus time looked at the Messiah.  The people of God were to be delivered from the exile and suppression they suffered under the four great heathen empires by the coming of the Messiah, who as the true Davidic King would set up a universal kingdom.

But that Messiah was not just going to set up a universal kingdom.  Intimately connected with this – just like with King David – was the building of a new Temple so that their covenant God – who was present in the inner sanctuary through the Shekinah Glory – would finally return to the Temple as we see in Daniel’s contemporary prophet Ezekiel.  Of course that Temple is on a mountain.

In short, what was necessary was a new exodus.  Just as the ancient people were liberated from slavery out of Egypt, and were given the Tabernacle to worship in, so the people in Jesus time needed a new exodus, a new covenant, a new temple and a new glory in the temple.  It is these things that we see in miniature in the Gospel of today: God is returning to His people in Jesus the Messiah who by His death and resurrection will perform a new exodus, will set up a Kingdom with a new Temple and a new glory, the Holy Ghost.  And all this is concentrated on the person of Jesus.  He is the cornerstone of that new Temple and we are part of it as well.

And it is exactly these Exodus and Temple themes that we see in the story of the Transfiguration as the fresco’s of an Italian holy chapel:

  • Moses was on the Mountain, so the Temple is on a Mountain, just as Jesus goes up on the mountain.
  • Just as Moses face was shining when he came down, so the Glory of God rested in the Temple, just so Jesus’ face is transfigured.
  • Just as the cloud descended on Moses, the cloud filled the Tabernacle and the Temple of God, and even so the cloud descends on Jesus.
  • Just as God spoke to Moses, and God revealed his will between the Cherubim in the Sanctuary, even so God speaks to Jesus.
  • Just as God was to dwell with the people in the Tabernacle given to Moses, and in the temple of Solomon, so this Transfiguration happens on the Feast of Tabernacles.  Now God dwells with us in Jesus, the Messiah.
  • Just as Moses had to wait six days for the Cloud to come, the Temple was ready after six years (and indeed the whole Creation, the true temple of God), even so the Transfiguration takes place, we are told, after six days [Matthew 17:1].

Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, they testify of Jesus, the Messiah in whom all the promises of the OT – that prophetic word that shines as a lamp in dark place (as Peter says) – are fulfilled, in Whom the true Temple arises.  Therefore “a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!’”

It is all about Him.  And Peter in our Epistle of today tells us that this is exactly what we have the OT for – ‘the prophetic word’, the “lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19 ESV).  That prophetic word of the OT is filled with the Spirit of Christ which tells us of Him, “of his sufferings, and of his glory” (1Peter 1:11).  My brothers and sisters don’t be afraid of those who try to tear your bible apart with their criticism.  They aim their criticism on historical and cultural accuracy, but it will never touch the person of Jesus.  On the contrary it only helps us to better understand the scriptures, so that the lamp shines even more clearly. Scripture is the lamp by which we see Jesus.  But our faith, our hope resides in a person, not in a book. 

(3) Seeing Jesus’ Glory

The Transfiguration, Raphael, 1520
The Transfiguration, Raphael, 1520

Peter was an eyewitness of His Transfiguration and later of his resurrection.  And this has been the witness of the faithful in every generation, as John says referring to the same event: we have seen his glory full of grace and truth.

You might say: that is all nice that Peter and John saw it, but how will I see His glory?  Well, on the Mountain, what is it that Moses, Elijah and Jesus were talking about: indeed his passing.  The Greek word here is Exodus, referring explicitly to the Jewish Exodus and all the elements contained in it: his death, his resurrection, his ascension to the mountain, the glory in the tabernacle, etc.  It is typical of John’s Gospel that he does not refer to the transfiguration but often speaks of the glorification of Christ, in connection with His sacrifice on the cross, resurrection and ascension.  Thus referring to His Exodus.

Well, and what was Jesus doing when he was transfigured?  Indeed, he was praying.  Congregation of the Lord, what are we doing here and what do we see acted out before us here, Sunday by Sunday, Feast by Feast: the Sacrifice of the Eucharist, the Worship of Heaven.  Christ is the Paschal Lamb and we celebrate His Exodus – His Glory – every Sunday.  My brothers and sisters you are on the holy mountain, in the New Temple, as we speak, and as you pray, you will gaze on His glory and will be transfigured yourself.

Transfiguration - ANGELICO, Fra 1440
Transfiguration – Fra Angelico, 1440

For that is the question: will the Eucharist change us?  Will we share in His Exodus?  It will mean we will have to die to sin, and rise again in a holy life.  The Liturgy lifts us up to him, to that holy mountain of Sion (Rev. 4) where Jesus resides, Transfigured and Glorified.  And there we gaze on the Glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ – that is the crucified Christ – and we are changed into His likeness.  Remember this when you come in this building, this little mountain.  It is consecrated, that means made one with that heavenly mountain.  Therefore it is a holy place.  A place united with heaven where Jesus is Transfigured before you.

The Gospel contains these mysterious words: And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.  And they kept silent.  This is the proper response as we see His glory revealed in our worship:

  • We only look to Jesus, not to the Moses’s and Elijah’s of the Church.  We don’t want entertainment in our worship by men, but we want to see Jesus (Jn 12:21).
  • And we are silent.  Not just physically silent.  But the disordered passions of our hearts are stilled as well.  It is the peace, harmony and tranquillity of heaven.
  • Matthew adds another element: “they fell on their face, and Jesus came and touched them and said Arise.”  John has the same reaction in seeing the Lord glorified in Revelation 1.  This little mountain of Holy Trinity Church, is the place where we fall on our faces.
  • And Jesus comes to touch us, as we receive Him in Holy Communion.

If we have thus seen and even tasted His glory, like Peter we would love to pitch our little tent here and never leave the mountain again.  But the disciples had to come down from the mountain.  There was a work to be done: people to heal, demons to cast out.  We can’t elaborate on this further now.  But let me say this: we cannot just stay here, safely in our little church, we must go out for the healing and liberation of this world, and live a life liberated from the evil demons that control our society.

So today, come up on this mountain and share in the great Exodus the faithful Son of God achieved for you and me.  Let us die with him, that we may rise with him; gaze upon His glory that we may be changed into his likeness and go out and serve.

Amen.

Transfiguration - DUCCIO di Buoninsegna
Transfiguration – Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-11