Today is the eve of the Transfiguration. There are reasons why this is such an important feast, not just because it is dramatic and pretty. It is a turning point, a move from the preaching and teaching and healing to the road to the Cross. From the Daily Reading for Monday, David wants to build a Temple for the Arc of God, “Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’ (2 Sam 7:1-2) “Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel (2 Sam 7: 8b).” And Nathan was instructed to tell David, “He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me (2 Sam 7: 12-13).” To us this brings to mind the Incarnation. But in the context of 2 Samuel the subject was shall the Arc of the Covenant continue to be housed in a tent? For a tent dwelling people, shepherds, a people forever on the move with their families and their livestock, a tent is a sacred place. It may be a structure that can be put up and taken down quickly, but in that space all acts of hospitality, all the fecundity of the tribe, all the life of the people dwell. So the question if God wishes his Arc, the sacred vessel of the Covenant, God’s very presence, to be brought indoors and put in an immovable place is not a casual one.
God tells Nathan to tell David to build a temple. It would be magnificent, made of wood and stone and the work of human hands from the gifts of Creation. And at its heart the Holy of Holies, the Arc of the Covenant was to be placed the Tabernacle. But with the Transfiguration we begin to hear about a temple not made by human hands, one which will be rebuilt in three days from the body and blood of a man, a prophet, a preacher, a troublemaker. Who was also God. With Jesus’ death and Resurrection, Assumption, and the coming of the Holy Spirit, the New Covenant is no longer an artifact in a temple or tent, but housed in the very bodies of those called to God as children through the love of Christ. That is, it now dwells in us. All the time. In bed, at the market, in school, in Church. Oh, wait, isn’t the Church a temple? Where we celebrate the Eucharist?
Where is the temple now? And what is a house, a home, and what does it mean? Even Jesus warns a person who wants to follow him that foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head. But the Advocate does rest. She resides in us, a gift conferred in baptism and renewed with confirmation. So we are temples, or rather the whole of the ekklesia, the assembly of God’s people, are a temple. A Temple must be perfect, mustn’t it? That is a heavy burden, and one that has been badly used, sadly, drawing on some sexy Old Testament language about pollution. But we are a people redeemed, forgiven.
Back to the Transfiguration, that event on a hill. What did those apostles see? We are only told his clothes were so bright they seemed white. (Don’t angels appear in white garments?) He glowed, or something like that. (Didn’t Moses’ face glow after being with God up a mountain?) How did Jesus appear, this man who held the fullness of the One God.? I suggest he momentarily was the ascended Christ, a foretaste of that change, that transfiguration which changed everything. The last of a series of life changes starting with death, and then being again alive, and finally rising in glory to his Father. Perhaps even a suggestion of the Holy Spirit blazing within the incarnate Jesus. In that moment, Jesus was the Holy of Holies. And in a flash, it was gone, no booth to memorialize it, no fallen Elijah’s cloak, no scorched ground. And they all went down the hill to heal and preach some more. And very soon Jesus would set his face in stone towards Jerusalem and the completion of his earthly task.
David had a home, a fine palace. How could he not want as much for his God? When we say, “I am going home,” we conjure an image of safety, comfort, nourishment. It is, hopefully, a place to let our hair down, kick back, take off the mask which we often must wear in the world. It is a place where we offer hospitality to others, and where, with God’s help, we share the intimacy of our lives with our partner, and the joy of raising our children. It can be a place of personal prayer. And while in reality that ideal is often not met, we should not be quick to dismiss this as a fantasy, and deconstruct it with our post-modern cynicism. That home realized is a bit of the Kingdom which we work toward. What those friends of Jesus saw and heard on the mountain when Jesus transfigured was their future selves holding the spark of the Spirit, becoming the temple. That is what we bring to our physical houses and churches to make these places holy. We are the temple. That isn’t just a demand for a righteous life, but a present reality. In Baptism with water and the Spirit, we are each of us and corporately just as much a temple as was the Temple in Jerusalem or the Transfigured Christ, only in our flawed and broken bodies. That transfiguration in the Spirit which we carry is the gift which sustains us, heals us, pulls us down the mountain to go to work, and ultimately to turn our face toward Jerusalem, and life eternal. It doesn’t make us pretty. It doesn’t make us thin. It doesn’t make us smart. It doesn’t make us pure. It makes us perfect in the eyes of God.
What about those churches? I think they are needed. Periodically the beautiful murals get whitewashed and the stained glass gets smashed, or the buildings themselves are torn down, in an attempt to refocus on that true temple, the people of God. But those special places we call Church hold memories, scents, color, sound that penetrate our minds, our souls, when we gather to pray and celebrate and feast at the Table. I think we need to be reminded often that our church is our desert tent, our cedar palace, our Temple of the Holy of Holies. The places where together we renew our faith and go forth to love and serve the Lord. And for those many who have no home, the refugees, the victims of war, the poor, they, too, are part of the temple. We are called to care for them, and our churches can be a refuge, a place of love and food and warmth. We are all transfigured in Christ, and we transfigure the places where we dwell and pray and build the Kingdom of God.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.