Transfiguration Sunday

February 10, 2002
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Exodus 24: 12-18
Reading 2: 
Psalm 2 or 99
Reading 3: 
2 Peter 1: 16-21
Reading 4: 
Matthew 17: 1-9
By Barry Woodbridge

Last week’s gospel lection from Matt. 5: 1-12 is linked to this week’s by Matthew’s continuing development of the Moses-Jesus relationship. In Matt 5:1-12, the sermon was preached on the mountain (compared with Luke’s on the plain), and today Jesus is again on a mountain, as was Moses, when the next theophany occurs, transforming his ministry yet again.

In terms of a process hermeneutic, what we have here is a rich abundance of scriptural texts used to interpret other scriptural texts. We may watch how the Genesis community handles the Moses traditions as it composes the theophany to Moses on Sinai episodes, how Matthew handles Mark’s and other possibly post-resurrection materials to validate Jesus’ ministry and the objections that Elijah has not yet come prior to the Messiah, and then how the unknown author of 2 Peter handles the apostolic witness to the transfiguration story ("we ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain" v.18 ) as eye witness testimony authenticating this word against false teachers who know only their own interpretations (v. 20).

Then, in addition to these encapsulated interpretations of scripture within scripture, there is the same situation present as the Revised Common Lectionary committee presents these texts to be read together. We are now no longer interpreting each scripture alone, but their significance when placed beside each other on this Sunday.

These lections are so multi-layered in this fashion that this week’s lections will cause many fainter-hearted hermeneuts to ricochet off them and on to simpler parallel issues, such as what does it mean to have a "mountain top" experience today, or how does one decompress from a retreat or mountain top experience in the decent to the "real world." These diversions, while quite helpful and illuminating each in their own right, are just that. They divert us from what the texts want to propose to us. Likewise, too much discussion about whether Matthew’s mountain of transfiguration theophany was originally an historical event, a vivid dream, a misunderstood natural event, or an apocalyptic story (see Eugene Boring’s excellent summary of these possibilities in The New Interpreter’s Bible, VII, 365-66) keeps us intrigued but off their main trajectory. A third possibility, that of using the texts to discuss the process of creative transformation, one of the main concepts in process thought, comes somewhat closer but by itself still may not underscore the same proposals as the Exodus, Matthew, and 2 Peter texts shared when they are read and heard together.

So, what is left to preach if one does not simply want to "discuss" the history of the texts themselves? These texts together want to propose something about the untamed glory of the divine which confronts and authorizes humans when they are at risk and alone before the awesome presence of the divine, and often in their weakness and suffering (In that regard, recall that Matthew’s transfiguration story this week is the cinematic trailer that leads us to the temptation in the wilderness next week.). The transcendent is writ so large all over these texts, thus further challenging the process-informed preacher to speak in such a way that a hearer whose self-understanding is perhaps "post-transcendent" will be able to hear the text as well as one who is so anchored in a more transcendent spirituality that they are less inclined to connect with the social roles of Moses and the prophets in the same texts.

Reality always includes eruptions or incursions of novelty. Some of that novelty, if it is identified or accentuated, can become the dominant occasion in human experience, and not just a spurious side band of intrigue. Such a shift to include and incorporate certain novelty, when it occurs rapidly enough, may be experienced as transformational. The community who reads and enters into conversation with these scriptural texts is open to the possibility that some novelty is so transformational that it represents the divine as a most inclusive and integrating novelty. This is one way to approach the very otherworldly description in Genesis about Moses’ encounter with the divine on Mt. Sinai. In terms of his physiology, what had formerly been his most obvious identifying characteristic of stammering now is replaced by an entire body-mind-spirit transformation the text notes as his face shining with a radiance it attributes to a resonance of the divine energy. However, this is not energy for energy’s sake or for the sake of claiming paranormal phenomena. Moses enters a cloud, goes where mortals have never gone, and survives, or does he? Who comes out of the cloud (after a re-enactment of creation of six days and six nights preparatory to entering the cloud and then a completion of forty days and forty nights once inside the cloud)? The two other witnesses led by Joshua appear to accept at least by any absence of any dispute the post-theophanous person as contiguous with the Moses they have known (the text doesn’t focus on their experience, but the subsequent narrative shows that the gathered community noticed a difference in the illumination of Moses). Moses’ life has been authorized and claimed for a higher purpose. His many interests have been integrated, fused into as singleness of purpose. Fowler, in his levels of religious experience, identifies this as a fourth level of highest integration of personal aims now transformed into a highly focused will to the service of the common good. Moses should receive, here, a new name. This is no longer the same Moses before this transformational event.

Matthew wants to say not that Jesus was some new Moses but that the divine power authorized and claimed the entire purpose of Jesus’ life as it had Moses’, only Jesus’ purpose was to awaken and re-present to humans the divine claim upon them to live under a new sense of ultimate power and justice called the Kingdom of God. Perhaps the transfiguration narrative in Matt. 17: 1-9 is best read as a post-Easter narrative telling how in this one life of Jesus the divine initiative integrated all that been in Moses and Elijah in such a way that God’s Christ incarnate (incursion of the ultimate into the everyday) was fully manifest. And since manifestation has been the theme of Epiphany season, here we conclude the season with the ultimate manifestation and a reprise of the words at Jesus’ baptism. All of Matthew’s Moses typology in Jesus serves to highlight his eschatological role, that Jesus marks the promise of completion of creation, and that in his transfiguration/resurrection the power of Christ becomes trans-historical so that his invitation extends to all times and places.