Feast of the Transfiguration
2 Kings 2: 1-12/2 Cor 4: 3-6/Mark 2:2-9
A. My homilist’s assignment today is to reflect with you on the Transfiguration.
- Given the account in Mark’s Gospel, that’s quite a challenge.
- Jesus goes up to a high mountain with three of his friends and suddenly his body starts to glow. Figures long dead suddenly appear … A voice booms from a suddenly formed cloud… and I loved this detail: His garments become “dazzling white such that no one on earth could bleach them.”
- That verse had a familiar ring for me, and after some Googling I found it – in a Tide ad of some years back that claims (I’m quoting) “Tide washes clothes whiter than you can bleach them.” – Someone at the Tide Company knew his or her bible.
- Is this Transfiguration story a literal account?
B. Whether we take it literally or not, I suggest that we can understand what this Transfiguration story is getting at by first understanding what Paul was getting at in this passage from his second letter to the Corinthians. After all, Paul wrote this letter around the year 57, about 13 years before Mark wrote his Gospel.
- I’m suggesting that Paul’s and his community’s experience of Jesus as image of God came first. The Transfiguration was a later story that Mark – actually all three synoptic Gospel writers – told in order to explain or communicate the earlier, post-resurrection experience of Jesus as the “imago Dei.”
- They communicated this through stories and symbols which, for them, were as true as they might be imagined.
C. After Jesus’ death and what they called the resurrection, Paul and Jesus’ followers came to realize – because they came to experience – that this Jesus of Nazareth was the very image of God, as Paul puts it, “the face of Jesus” was the face of “the glory of God.”
- What Paul and the early Jesus followers were recognizing is something that is found in all the major wisdom traditions of the world: That because the Ultimate or Holy Mystery that all religions are searching for is so beyond all human comprehension and understanding, humans need images, or embodiments or symbols of the Ultimate.
- Tibetan Buddhism, for example, teaches that the Buddha is both the essence of the Ultimate as well as the appearance of the Ultimate. And they recognize that we need appearances to get at the essence – in Jewish Christian language, we need images of God in order to come to know and experience God.
- And that’s what Paul and the disciples of Jesus realized through what they saw of this man Jesus of Nazareth during this life and especially through what they experienced after his death when they felt his continued presence among them in the breaking of bread: that to meet him was to meet the reality they called God.
- They came to be convinced that in this Jesus they saw how a human being lives and acts when a human being is fully aware of and responsive to being one with the divine Spirit.
- If I may summarize how Jesus was the image of God for them, or why they came to believe that to see him was to see God, I think it would be especially in two qualities: the way he was grounded in God and the way he was connected with people.
- His awareness of his union with what he called Abba, grounded him in a peace and strength that held him, that he trusted, no matter what.
- And this groundedness in Abba-God connected him profoundly with others, in a love for all, especially for the poor and marginalized, but also for his very enemies, for those who crucified him.
- In Jesus’ inner Peace and in his unconfined Compassion they saw God.
- And they felt this God was speaking to them in Jesus, as Jesus.
D. And this is the message that Mark was trying to convey, I suggest, in the story of the Transfiguration we read this morning:
- Symbols abound:
- Going up to a mountain like Mt. Sion where God appeared to Moses…
- Jesus’ human appearance was “transfigured”, the Greek word is “metamorpOthe” – he underwent a metamorphosis, his form took on another form – one characterized by splendorous white – Tide-white – just as in Exodus we are told that Moses faces was transformed into radiance after speaking with God (34:29).
- And then the presence of other recognized images of God – Moses and Elijah.
- And finally the voice of God telling them that this Jesus is the very offspring of God. As children share the DNA of parents, so Jesus shares the DNA of the divine. “My Beloved Son” is a synonym for “my image.”
- And then, the most important verse of this story: “Listen to him!” Listen. He’s got something very important to tell you, to show you, so listen up!
- The symbols of this story are much more important than the question of its facticity.
E. But the Transfiguration story does not contain something that Paul and the early community also came to discover: that this Jesus was not just the image of God. He was, as Paul repeats throughout his letters, also the Spirit of God.
- And this Spirit of Jesus could transfuse and yes, transfigure, our human spirit. We can have the same Spirit that Jesus had; we can have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16); we can “put on Christ” (Rom 13:14) Or in the words of our first reading, we can even receive “a double share of Jesus Spirit.” We can be the Christ that Jesus was.
- If this sounds a bit preposterous, remember that when Paul tells us that Jesus is the image God, we should not really be terribly surprised. After all, the opening chapters of Genesis tell us that God created all of us “in God’s image and likeness.”
- The difference between Jesus and us, therefore, is that he fully realized what all of us are; he showed what we can be. As theologians put it, Jesus is different from us not in kind but in degree. We are all images of God. He just realized and so shows us and assures us of what we can be. We too can live lives grounded in the peace of God and connected in love with others. Maybe not to the degree that Jesus did. But more tomorrow than we presently are doing today.
- So if Paul had written the story of the Transfiguration, the voice from the clouds would tell us not only “Listen to him.” It would also say: “Be him…. Or, let him be you, let his Spirit be your Spirit.”
F. But today’s story of the Transfiguration also suggests something important, something that Steve Zwettler pointed out in his Epiphany sermon: To say that Jesus is the exemplary image or Beloved Son of God in no way means that there are no other exemplary images or Beloved Son or Daughters of God who have the same effects on their followers as Jesus has on Christians.
- In today’s Gospel, Moses and Elijah are seen as alongside of, as equals to Jesus. When Peter wanted to build three tents there is no suggestion that Jesus’ tent was to be bigger than the others. (As St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was intentionally built to be bigger than all other churches in the world.)
G. So now, in what we are about to do in this Eucharistic liturgy, we can say with Peter “It is good for us to be here,” for we believe that, as we break bread and share the cup, as we remember his story, we too are in his presence, we too have the opportunity, through these symbols, to “Listen to him…to feel his presence, to allow his Spirit to mingle with our spirit, maybe “to have a double-share of his Spirit.”
- In the words and gestures and symbols of this liturgy, let us listen to this Beloved. Let this Beloved be us.