The Transfiguration

At Holy Eucharist today we celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration, transferred a day early to celebrate the name day of the College of the Transfiguration. It was a splendid celebration marking 25 years of the College of the Transfiguration.  What a wonderful history it has has had, what a wonderful future it has to look forward to, and what a wonderful community it is right now!

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By happenstance, I have been writing a sermon on the Transfiguration which will appear in the journal Expository Times next year.  It’s a first draft, but I thought it might be of interest since tomorrow is the feast day of the Transfiguration.

I am one of those Episcopalians who bows in reverence towards the reserved sacrament.  I do so because I believe the real presence of Christ is in, with, and under the consecrated bread and wine.  So when I see the sanctuary lamp burning I bow in the direction of the ambry or the tabernacle.

I do not, however, practice Eucharistic adoration, although I do feel the attraction.  To just sit or kneel for an hour or so in the presence of Christ would be a great comfort in the midst of the distractions, pains, and injustice of this world.  Even as I recognize how blessed I am, there is still so much about this life that hurts and wearies the soul.  Some days I would like nothing better than to escape the chaos and confusions of this world for some time apart in the holy presence of Jesus.

Still, I do not practice adoration of the blessed sacrament for a couple of reasons.  The first has to do with a matter of timing.  I am one of those Episcopalians who believes in the afterlife.  I hope someday to join the great company of saints gathered around the Lamb upon his throne.  Quite frankly, there are some parts of the Book of Revelation that I prefer not to be demythologized.  The promise that someday God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, when there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, the promise that someday God’s tabernacle will be with God’s people, and the promise that someday all living creatures will give glory and honor and thanks to the one seated on the throne is a bedrock hope.  But, precisely because it is hope, it is also still future.  Eucharistic adoration seems to be getting a little ahead of itself.

The second reason I don’t practice adoration of the blessed sacrament is that I don’t think Jesus wants to be shut up inside a booth.

In the story of the transfiguration in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus takes Peter, John, and James up a mountain in order to pray. And while Jesus prays, something extraordinary happens.  The appearance of his face changes and his clothing becomes dazzling white.  Moses and Elijah appear in glory and they speak with Jesus about the “departure” he will accomplish in Jerusalem.  We should think of Jesus’ “departure,” or more literally Jesus’ “exodus,” as his death, resurrection and ascension.  Jesus is the new Moses, and through his death and resurrection he will deliver God’s people from the Egypt of sin and death.  Perhaps we can see Moses and Elijah as representatives of the Law and the Prophets, which look forward to the whole redemptive work of the Messiah.  This has to be one of the all-time great mountaintop experiences.  Jesus prays and three holy heavyweights hold a summit meeting on the ways God will fulfill God’s promises through the death, resurrection and glorification of Jesus.

And Peter, John and James sleep through the whole thing, or so it seems.  We are told they were heavy with sleep and when they awoke they saw the transfigured Jesus along with Moses and Elijah.  But they could not have been awake for long, because the first thing Peter says is “Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”  Think how incongruous this statement is with the conversation Jesus was having with Moses and Elijah.  They were discussing the great things God was going to accomplish in the upcoming events of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension in Jerusalem.  Jesus, Moses and Elijah were all facing into God’s future. Peter wakes up, and through sleepy eyes squinting into the light, sees a whole lot of glory right in front of him. Why not build three booths for these shining stars of Israel, he wonders, like we do in the feast of the booths, which commemorates God’s presence and protection in the wilderness? Peter sees the transfigured Jesus with Moses and Elijah and he looks to the past.  The glory of God, which accompanied God’s people in olden days is now appearing on this holy mountain.  Let’s build some booths and preserve God’s presence, tabernacles for the reserved Shekinah.

Right on cue, almost as if to say, “Just hold your hammers, Mister Booth Builder, try fitting this into your shoddy construction,” God’s Shekinahappears while Peter is speaking as a cloud comes and overshadows them.  Ironically, it is God’s Shekinahthat envelops Peter, rather than Peter enclosing God’s presence.  And just in case Peter is either too thick or too afraid to catch God’s irony, a voice comes out of the cloud and says, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”  There is an echo here of what the voice from heaven says at Jesus’ baptism: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  But notice, in Luke’s Gospel, the words spoken at his baptism are in the second person, which suggests that only Jesus hears them.  In the transfiguration, the words are in the third person, which means the three disciples can hear them as well.  And what does God want to make clear to the disciples in addition to the affirmation of Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved Son?  The command to “Listen to him!”  It’s as if the voice from heaven is saying, “He just told you, about fifteen verses ago, that the ‘Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the leaders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’  That’s what he was talking about with Moses and Elijah, which you would have known if you hadn’t been asleep.  So stop it with the booths already.  My Shekinahis deeply hidden in the servant form of my Son, whose glory will only be fully revealed in the future, in his death, resurrection, and ascension.”

In Jurgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope, he draws a distinction between epiphany religions and a religion of promise.  Epiphany religions interpret God’s presence as the unveiling of what exists eternally in some non-historical, heavenly realm.  These religions provide comfort in the midst of chaos and change by putting us in touch with the self-disclosure, appearance or revelation of the divine. In epiphany religions life is sanctified and protected by means of magical, mystical and ritual relationships of correspondence with the eternal, original, cosmic order.  In the face of the chaos and horrors of life that come with the passage of time, epiphany religions try to get us back to the source by ritually returning to the time and place of the original revelation through festive celebrations.  In Peter’s desire to build booths for Jesus, Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration, we see a fine example of an epiphany religion.  Go to the mountaintop where God reveals God’s glory, build the booths to ritually preserve God’s Shekinah, escape the hurts and horrors of history by returning to God’s eternal presence.

Epiphany religions have great appeal.  And it’s not just that ancient Israel’s and the early church’s neighbors were attracted to epiphany religions.  In Peter’s response we see the perennial draw epiphany religions have had in the history of the church down to the present day. But, according to Moltmann, there are problems with epiphany religions.  By emptying history of meaning, these religions wind up providing sanction to the political and cultural status quo by linking it with eternity.  Don’t just think here of folks like the ancient Sumerians, but the church under Constantine, German Christians in Nazi Germany, and the theology of apartheid in South Africa.

In contrast to epiphany religions, Israel and the early church experienced God’s word and presence as a history of God’s promises and of God’s faithfulness to those promises. A biblical religion of promise fundamentally alters ideas about history and the status quo.  As Moltmann says, “here Yahweh’s revelation manifestly does not serve to bring the ever-threatened present in congruence with his eternity.  On the contrary, its effect is that hearers of the promise become incongruous with the reality around them, as they strike out towards the promised new future.  The result is not the religious sanctioning of the present but a break-away from the present towards the future.”  This religion of promise gives rise to Israel’s unique concept of history and its prophetic tendencies, which constantly call for greater righteousness in light of God’s faithfulness and God’s future. A religion of promise is not orientated backwards to the origin, nor upwards or within to the unconditioned eternal, but outwards and forwards into God’s future.  It is in the future that we will see God’s promises fulfilled and it is in the future that we will experience God’s glory in its fullness. Our life and faith finds its meaning and purpose in trying to live God’s promised righteousness and peace here and now in anticipation of their future fulfillment.

On the Mount of Transfiguration, we see Jesus engaged with Moses and Elijah in the religion of promise.  They are looking forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises in Jesus’ new exodus that he is about to accomplish in Jerusalem.  God’s glory cannot be preserved in rituals or reserved in booths. God’s glory will be mysteriously revealed in the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.  And even now the fullness of God’s revelation in the redemptive work of Christ will only be known in the future of the risen Lord. Christian faith remains orientated to the future because the promise that God has reconciled the godless and the godforsaken in the raising of the crucified Jesus awaits its fulfillment in the future, when “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them” will sing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

 

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