The Reverend Kathleen Killian
Transfiguration Sunday C/22
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]
This morning, on the last Sunday after the Epiphany, we find ourselves atop a mountain after having followed Jesus from his birth in Bethlehem to his baptism in the River Jordan and the beginning of his public ministry in Nazareth, and onward. We’ve been catching glimpses of who he is—and suddenly—the veil is lifted and our eyes are opened to the glory of God in Jesus.
Of the Transfiguration and God’s glorious revelation, Karl Rahner SJ writes: Union with God, which Jesus otherwise holds hidden in the ultimate depths of his soul, now fills up all the chambers of his soul, [union with God] embraces his body drawing it, too, into the blessedness of God's light and God's unity.
Though mystical indeed, the Transfiguration is not divorced from the body, from the material, from earth, or from time. The path up the mountain to the transcendent is in essence the path of the human heart to the heart of the holy One, and thus a path of possibility for everyone, as it was for Peter, James, and John who have been tirelessly following Jesus.
Only eight days earlier, Jesus had asked his recently chosen twelve apostles who they thought he was. Peter professes: You are the Messiah of God. Then, for the first time, Jesus speaks to all of them about his coming passion, death, and resurrection, and laid out the rather onerous conditions of following him. And so, as Peter, John, and James trudged up the mountain with Jesus, they are carrying the heavy cross of Jesus’ disconcerting disclosure.
Jesus has gone up the mountain to pray in preparation for his passion. He did little without praying and first asking for his Father’s word and will. And it is while he is praying that the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white; as the Greek indicates, rays of streaming light were emanating from Jesus’ every cell.
As abruptly Moses, the great Law-giver of the people of Israel, and Elijah the greatest of the prophets appear also in glory and are speaking with the blazing shimmering Jesus about his departure—quite literally his exodus—which he is about to accomplish at Jerusalem. It is as if the princes of Israel’s life and thought and religion confirm the decisive steps that Jesus is about to take.
Perhaps because of the long trek up the mountain, perhaps because it was already evening time, Peter, James, and John are heavy with sleep only to suddenly “wake up” to see Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. They not only see but perceive the reality of what has always been and is: the blessedness of God’s light and God’s unity.
Peter wants to seize the moment and freeze-frame this glorious vision by staying put on the mountain with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, and blurts out—I’ll build you three dwellings!—unknowingly assuming a defensive posture against time and its transient nature. Yet there, atop the mountain, as in any moment, beats the deeper heart of time and the possibility it conducts. As poet John O’Donohue writes: in its deeper heart, time is transfiguration.
God draws Peter’s time-bound body, and James and John’s into the cloud of God’s bosom; they are beclouded, enshrouded, and embraced, and from the pillar of the cloud, a voice speaks to them—was it like the sound of the wind or a sonorous boom?—and declares: This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!
Suddenly—the cloud is lifted and their eyes are opened to the glory of God in Jesus. But just Jesus. Only Jesus. Moses and Elijah are nowhere in sight, and Jesus is no longer ablaze in light. It’s eerily silent: what time is it? what just happened?
A profound aloneness and solitude envelopes them as Jesus starts heading down the mountain in silence. The disciples gather their wonder and fear and wobbly legs underneath them and hurry after their Lord’s long strides. No-one says a word as they descend to the bottom of the mountain where a restless crowd is awaiting, including a very sick and convulsive boy, who Jesus’ disciples have not been able to heal. His divinity newly and fully revealed, the still very human Jesus snaps at them all: You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring the possessed boy to me. Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit and everyone is awestruck—just like on top of the mountain—by a transfiguration of another kind, and by the possibility at the heart of time.
I appreciate this rather harsh part of the story as Jesus’ divinity in no way eclipses his humanity; and any delusions we might harbor about “enlightenment” or saintliness are burst. Yes, we are changed from glory to glory, from suffering to suffering, from moment to moment, and we carry on as before; as the Zen saying goes: before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.
Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is a kind of guide back down the mountain into the foothills and pitfalls of faithful living. The church at Corinth, which Paul had founded, was in turmoil, and this early Christian community was pushing back at Paul. His second letter to them is both a defense of his apostolic standing, and an urgent call to turn away from cunning and false teachings. He fears for their spiritual bondage and mental blindness and sees the need for an unveiling of their hearts. Paul uses the story of Moses shining face having to be veiled after his encounter with God atop Mt. Sinai (our Old Testament passage), to make his point.
But we have to be careful here, as there may be a tendency, even a temptation, to read this particular passage of 2 Corinthians as an outright rejection of Moses and the Old Testament. But for Paul, himself a Jew transfigured by Christ, there is no true disconnect between the Torah and the Testament to Christ. Just a few verses later, he writes: it is the God who said: ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. The veil, which both concealed and revealed God’s transformative glory in Moses, but for a short time, has forever been lifted in Christ.
Such revelation is a saving event . . . and has shaking, transforming, and healing power (Paul Tillich). Paul exhorts the Corinthians, and us, to the freedom, hope, and boldness that is the result of the transfiguring encounter with the Spirit of the Lord. Hold fast to the hope of God, he says; do not lose heart; pray; listen; forgive; be generous; forebear, and live in peace.
At this time of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and frightening war, let us doubly pray this message of God’s hope and peace, and carry it us as we begin our descent from the glorious light atop the mountain into the holy darkness of Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. For forty days, through the beating heart of time, we will follow Jesus on another path of possibility through his passion to the cross, our bodies too, drawn into into the blessedness of God's light and God's unity.