Transfiguration and the Word

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What a blessed treasury of riches. It is the feast of the Transfiguration. If it were not, the daily Gospel reading is from John starting at Chapter 1, Verse 1. “In the beginning was the Word.”  And the summary of all the Christology needed for salvation, all the rest being the instruction book. The Transfiguration appears in all the synoptic gospels (Mt 17:1-8) (Mk 9:2-8), (Lk 9:28-36), and even in John there seems to be an oblique reference, “we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. (Jn 1:14b)” There is another reference in 2 Peter 1:16-18. But the best narrative is in the synoptic Gospels. With some small variation we are told that Jesus takes Peter and the Sons of Thunder (James and John) to a high place, and high places we know to be particularly holy. The three most outspoken of the twelve, as far as we can tell.  And in fulfillment of a prophesy in Malachi 2:3-4, they see Jesus in dialogue with Moses, the lawgiver, and Elijah, the prophet of the coming of the Messiah. We are reminded that Jesus came to bring a new law, and his cousin John came as a messenger to proclaim his coming. And then Jesus becomes a figure of light, and is alone. The voice of God the Father comes out of a cloud and proclaims Jesus his Son, and admonishes “listen to him.”  Beyond the proclamation at Jesus’ baptism at the hands John the Baptizer, they, and we, are instructed to heed the words of Jesus. Jesus, whom we are told later most explicitly in John’s Gospel, is one with the Father, and to know him is to know his Father. Listen to him. He is the Incarnate One, God with us.

We can imagine why Peter wants to make booths for the three, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  Out of confusion and desire to make the vision more concrete, perhaps? Maybe just a desire to hold the moment, which he knows will fade away. And this vision makes it possible for him to see and hear, and proclaim Jesus the Messiah. It is a major turning point in Jesus earthly ministry. Down the slope of the mountain, down to the inevitable road to the Cross, to do his Father’s will. But the image, the reality of the Transfiguration is hard to pin down. What happened? What does it tell us?  None of those three Gospels say much – a white garment, a radiant face.

It is all about light. About the Light of the World. Light is funny stuff. Modern physics can describe it, do experiments, but it isn’t like gold, or figs, or hedgehogs.  It isn’t really real. You can’t really capture it. The ancients didn’t know about light as an electromagnetic phenomena, or that photons have no mass, or that there are wavelengths of light which humans can’t see. We know a lot more than that, and can worship God the Creator with more awe and wonder than our forebears. But the most ancient of us, on savannahs, in caves, knew that the sun made things grow and gave warmth. That the moon gave light but no heat, and that the night was dangerous. They knew that without light the crops failed, and with too much light the crops withered. They feared lightening, and captured fire. A blessing, good for baking bread and roasting meat. A weapon during a war. But always Light was of God, even when the gods they knew were idols or sacred places. Light was too important not to be. And transfigured, Jesus the Christ is revealed by his Father to these disciples as a Body of Light, as God, so listen to him, obey him. And while the three synoptic tell us what happened, it is in John, who doesn’t, that we hear Jesus referred to as the Light, over and over again. And we must never forget that this weary itinerant teacher was the Light of the World, walking to a strange, apparently useless, terrible death to do something that would change the whole universe, at least for us poor sinful humans, and probably in mysterious ways for all life and all creation. Of course in this world of cynics it is all too easy to say it was a trick of the light, a sunbeam slipping through that cloud which illuminated the Teacher and he appeared to be engulfed in light. But by faith we must take the words literally. Jesus the Christ appears for the first time since that baptism in the Jordan as Light from Light, True God of True God, Begotten, not made. It is just as central to our faith as the Resurrection. They are all of a piece, the baptism, the feeding, the healing, the transfiguration, the death, the resurrection and ascension, a great arc in the salvation of the world.

In the Gospel lections from John for the whole of this month we have bread, bread, and more bread, in one form or another.  Bread, wine, fish, water, food for our incarnate bodies, as Jesus was God incarnate, and ate with us, and fed us. But there is another, Jesus the Christ, Son of God, Light of Light, God from God, Begotten not made. The Jesus who feeds us in another way, with food and drink so that we may never again hunger and thirst. The food and drink of his Table. Jesus who is divine. His Father is the one who proclaimed, “Let there be light,” at the beginning of creation. And then we have John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word,” and Jesus is that Word, in all the ways we say in the Creeds, this Son of Man, Son of God.  The transfiguration is a pivotal miracle. Jesus the man, up the mountain with his disciples and friends, is seen in his Glory as a creature of pure energy, of Light, a blinding reflection of God his Father. That is the glory that we aspire to when we pray, follow, obey, confess, and live out our mortal lives, filled with the immortal Spirit of God, Spirit of Christ, and the promise of Life in Light, immortal in His presence, in his Love. I think I have seen a glimpse of that light in the face of an adult baptized at Easter Vigil in our new immersion pool. I see it at the altar, and in nature. I have felt the burning light of Glory in deep silent prayer. It is a gift of Grace you can’t grasp or demand.

But we lead busy material lives. And we forget that we are creatures of Light in Christ. Take time, listen, turn to the Light. Something to remember on the freeway “parking lot” during rush hour, or the heady excitement of a march or vigil. Allow His Transfiguration to transfigure us in this life, as it will in the life to come.

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.

 

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