Exodus 34:29-35 – Moses’ face shines when he comes down from Mt. Sinai with the 10 Commandments. He has to veil his face.
Psalm 99 – Extol the Lord our God and worship him at his holy mountain.
2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2 – Paul contrasts the glory of Moses with the glory of Christ. When one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.
Luke 9:28-36, (37-43) – The Transfiguration foreshadows the resurrection. God affirms Jesus’ identity again, as at Jesus’ baptism.
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
Stories figure, disfigure, unfigure, and transfigure our realities:
For the rational mind this is a very strange text, because it is about transfigurations, people who didn’t die reappearing, and a voice coming from a cloud. If you have ever read anything from Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende or Laura Esquivel, among others, you know that this transfiguration text can easily be counted among the Latin American magical realism literature.
Magical realism is about different levels of reality working at the same time. The binary realms of the real/unreal do make sense since the real happens in the fictional but the fictional is real. The natural must be counted by the supernatural and the fantastic is just a true presence as a three in the way. The stories with people of all kinds, ghosts, and other presences are ways that figure, disfigure, unfigure, and transfigure our realities.
– Cláudio Carvalhaes, native Brazilian, Associate Professor of Worship at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Previously, he had taught at McCormick Theological Seminary, Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
His comments on the Transfiguration.
The Transfiguration is a vision into the reign of God:
It is also evident that when Peter, James and John awake to see the transfigured Christ conversing with Moses and Elijah, they are seeing, in some fundamental sense, into the kingdom of God. As much as they have been warned by Jesus that to identify with him as the Suffering Servant long announced, means that they too must suffer, so here these three are given a glimpse of that glory reserved for Jesus and to be shared by his faithful.
The story of the Transfiguration is also recorded in Mark 9:2-10 and Matthew 17:1-9. It is an important story that some scholars have suggested is a repurposed resurrection story.
Mikeal Parsons (Luke, Paideia), calls this a “dream-vision.” Indeed, Matthew calls it a vision.
Our text begins, “Now about eight days after these sayings…” Eight days after what sayings? The prediction of his crucifixion and resurrection, and his call for the disciples to take up their cross too. This prediction is pivotal in Luke.
We have already heard that Jesus had many disciples, perhaps hundreds. They gather around him, as do the crowds, including Romans and those from Tyre and Sidon. Only twelve were chosen as apostles. Only three however, are chosen to go up the mountain. Peter, James and John, the inner circle of disciples. The Executive Committee if you will.
Luke tells us they go up the mountain to pray. When do you go up the mountain to pray? If we are going to make time to be spiritually centered, to listen for the still, small voice of God, we must be intentional, or the business and cares of life will crowd out all spirituality.
Up on the mountain, Jesus’ face changes, like that of Moses on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 34:29-30). The Torah tells us that Moses’ face shone when he came down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant, because he had been speaking with God.
Suddenly Jesus is speaking with two others: Moses and Elijah. Luke likes this phrase, “Behold, two men…” says Parsons. Consider the two men in the resurrection garden: And while the women were perplexed about the empty tomb, behold, two men stood there in dazzling apparel, and asked, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:4ff) Luke uses the same device at the ascension, in Acts 1:10. As the disciples are staring into heaven, “behold, two men” stood by them in white robes and asked, “Why are you staring into heaven…” The two men appear at the vision in which Jesus glory is revealed amidst is crucifixion prediction, then when he rises from the dead as he said he would, then finally when he ascends into glory, as promised. Are these two men in the subsequent passages also supposed to be Moses and Elijah?
Elijah was also on a mountain, Horeb, where he went to complain about his persecution for doing Lord’s work. 1 Kings 19:11 :
[The Lord] said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
Luke says the three appeared in “glory,” a word he only uses eleven times. Glory shines. At Jesus birth, the angel appears to the shepherds, and Luke says, “and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” Glory is power, and also praise. The son of man will come in a cloud, with power and glory.
Luke’s version is shorter than Matthew’s and Mark’s, but has some details that the other accounts do not. For example, only Luke tells us what Jesus, Moses and Elijah were discussing. They were speaking of his “departure” (his Exodus?) – what he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. This is, of course, a reference to Jesus’ impending crucifixion, predicted eight days ago.
In this theophany, Luke clearly connects Jesus’ crucifixion with Moses and Elijah. Connecting Moses and the crucifixion is stunning.
Jeffrey invites us to meditate on the painting by Jewish painter Marc Chagall, which has Christ crucified over Moses and those fleeing in the Exodus. Chagall, the most successful artist of the 20th century, uses the crucifixion as a symbol of Jewish suffering and persecution. Jesus is in a long line of persecuted Jews. Some say Chagall was the only Jewish artist of his generation to engage another religious tradition without betraying his own. He forged a universal message. The Bible story is one of exile and homecoming. Exodus, migration, slavery and freedom.
One may even see in this artwork the global immigration and refugee crisis we are now in, the largest in world history, with 68 million displaced people. Who are the enslaved and powerless today? We must engage this question, otherwise we miss the meaning of the cross in our time.
Back in the story, a cloud overshadows them all on the mountain, reminiscent of the cloud that went before the Israelites in the Exodus. Jeffrey points out the cloud that covered the Tabernacle in Exodus 40, when the glory of The Lord filled the Tabernacle, hence the disciples’ suggestion that booths be built. Verse 33:
Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”-not knowing what he said.
“How good, Lord, to be here.” Indeed. The Feast of Booths or Tabernacles celebrated the protection offered by God during their wanderings in the wilderness (Leviticus 23:39-43).
Peter, James and John are nodding off. Luke constantly warns us of falling asleep, while waiting on Christ, in the Garden of Gethsemane (22:39-46), or for his return. In time, Jesus, Moses and Elijah wrap up their conversation. The cloud envelops them, and then the words, “This is my Son, my chosen, listen to him.” Similar words to those spoken at Jesus’ baptism. And then, as suddenly as they came, Moses and Elijah are gone. Jesus is alone. And they all remain silent about these things.
Peter, James and John want to stay up on the mountain. Can you blame them? They’re having their mountain top experience, basking in the glory of God. How many of us would prefer to stay safe and cozy in our spiritual experiences, insulated from the cares of the world? Who wants to descend the mountain and deal with the poor, the blind and the oppressed captives to whom Jesus claimed to be sent in his hometown speech (Luke 4)?
How good, Lord, to be here!
Yet we may not remain;
but since you bid us leave the mount,
come with us to the plain.
The very next verses of Luke 9 take us down the mountain. They are the second part of this Sunday’s gospel, the optional part, in parentheses. There’s a danger in seeing this portion as “optional.” Jesus and the inner circle come down the mountain to encounter a great crowd. Are we not surrounded by a sea of need? A man begs Jesus to come look at his son, who is having seizures. He convulses and foams at the mouth. Back to the messiness of ministry. Then Jesus again fortells his death. It’s too tempting to end the reading still on the mountain.
Are we not tempted in the same way? Here we are in our wealthy, safe society, cheerfully praising God in our wealthy, safe churches. Who wants to get their hands dirty with the ugly, messy problems of the world? All those hurting people out there are downright depressing, and a bit of an inconvenience frankly. Let’s just camp out here on the mountain and sing saccharine Jesus songs.
Carvalhaes (op cit):
The homeless, the immigrant, the incarcerated, those mothers who work three jobs to make a minimum wage to feed three, four kids, they are like that boy, thrown into the shadows of our society, convulsing day and night right in front of us! And we, who seem to not know anything about the transfiguration of Jesus or our own transfiguration (metamorphoses) are looking at these people while asking Jesus: can we dwell in our worship tabernacles basking in your glory, away from the people and their pressing needs?
Unless we get out of the fortress of our worship spaces, and rebuke the unclean spirits of the powers that be, and shed light into the lives of the poor of our communities, we will never know what transfiguration means.
To follow Jesus is to serve. To follow Jesus is to deny ourselves and take up our cross. This text transitions us from Epiphany to Lent. Perhaps this is why we moved Transfiguration to this time and place in the liturgical year. We now descend the heights of the season of Epiphany, and enter into Lent, a time of repentance and reflection on the cross. Perhaps we do so with some reluctance. Let this cup pass from me… But this is where Christ calls any who would follow, as Jesus just said a few verses before today’s text:
Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. (Luke 9:23-24)
It is our confidence in the resurrection, prefigured here in the Transfiguration, that gives us the hope, and yes, even the joy to walk the way of the cross.
On to Golgatha.