Transfiguration Sunday (Last Sunday after Epiphany)

February 22, 2004
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Exodus 34:29-35
Reading 2: 
Psalm 99
Reading 3: 
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Reading 4: 
Luke 9:28-43
By Ronald Farmer

Exodus 34:29-35
Today’s Hebrew Bible lection is a portion of the renewal of the Sinai covenant (Exodus 32-34, which parallels Exodus 19-24 in many interesting ways) following the rebellion that had resulted in the destruction of the first tablets. As today’s reading begins, Moses has just returned from Mt. Sinai bearing the new tablets, unaware that his face shown as a result of his encounter with God. The fear this transformation wrought among the people, including Aaron, caused Moses to don a veil. The curious feature of this solution is that he would cover his face after he would address the people. According to vv. 33-35, his custom was to remove the veil when he entered God’s presence, then with face aglow as he emerged from the Tabernacle, he would deliver God’s message to the people. Only after he spoke would he cover his face. Curious, indeed! Another oddity of the passage is that it does not say how long this veiling custom continued. Did it perhaps exist only during the interval between the time of the glorious manifestation of the divine presence on Mt. Sinai (Exod 24:25-28) and the time the divine presence inhabited the Tabernacle (Exod 40:34-38), thus highlighting Moses’ role as mediator? No wonder this passage evoked commentary from he Apostle Paul in the form of today’s epistle reading.

Two other features of the passage merit comment. First, the word translated “shine” usually means “horns” (cf. the Latin Vulgate and Michelangelo’s Moses with horns). Does this unusual word suggest “rays of light,” like horns?  Second, the word translated “veil” occurs nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible, although that does seem to be what the word indicates in this context.

However one deals with the perplexities of the passage, one thing is clear. Moses’ transformed appearance was due to being in the presence of God. Two questions naturally arise: Do others witness a transformation in us as a result of our encounters with the Holy?  In what way are we mediators of God’s transforming glory?

Psalm 99
Most scholars view the enthronement psalms as liturgical elements of an annual fall celebration during which God was reenthroned. Although Psalm 99 concludes a series of enthronement psalms (93, 95-99), several traits set it apart from the others. Atypically, it includes numerous references to incidents in Israel’s history; most enthronement psalms focus on creation. And although God’s holiness and transcendence are stressed in such psalms, Psalm 99 uncharacteristically links holiness to the more immanent themes of justice, equity, forgiveness, and answered prayer. An interesting holiness feature—“Holy is he!” (vv. 3, 5)—divides the psalm into three portions:  vv. 1-3, 4-5, 6-9.

Vv. 1-3. Although God’s reign is universal, these verses call special attention to the location of the divine throne in Zion (Jerusalem). God is “enthroned upon the cherubim” (the winged sculptures on either side of the ark). God’s “footstool” (v. 5) is either the ark itself or Zion.

Vv. 4-5. This cosmic, transcendent Ruler is nonetheless intimately involved in the daily affairs of Zion. God loves, and therefore works to establish justice, equity, and righteousness. Note, too, the switch to the more intimate second person in the address:  “You.”

Vv. 6-9. Moses, Aaron, and Samuel “called upon” God on behalf of the people, a sinful people, and God forgave them. Even during the exodus and wilderness wanderings, a time characterized by complaining and disobedience as much as by faithfulness, God’s presence (the “pillar of cloud”) remained with the Israelites, for God is faithful even when people are not.

The association of Psalm 99 with the transfiguration may be due to the Gospel accounts’ mention of Moses and the cloud . . . but there is a deeper connection. The transfiguration is a scene that partakes of the fundamental sense of holiness; Jesus is set apart and unapproachable, and the disciples are terrified. In each Gospel, however, the transfiguration follows immediately Jesus’ first announcement that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer, die, and be raised. Like Psalm 99, this juxtaposition pushes toward a redefinition of holiness and sovereignty in the direction of committed involvement and suffering love. Defying the conventional notion of holiness and the worldly definition of royal power, God is the Holy One who is persistently present in our midst. (J. Clinton McCann, Jr., The Book of Psalms. The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 4 [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996] 4:1076.)

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
2 Corinthians 3:1-4:6 contains a comparison of the respective glories of the old and new covenants. Today’s epistolary reading is a midrashic exposition of today’s Hebrew Bible lection, an exposition that plays with the image of Moses’ veil. In his reading of the earlier passage, Paul first comments that Moses’ veil hid a glory that was passing (v. 13), that is, the glory of the old covenant was giving way to the greater glory of the new covenant (cf. vv. 7-11). In the very next verse (v. 14), the veil that had shielded the Israelites from Moses’ shining face becomes a veil that prevents them from understanding Moses’ message. In effect, Paul shifts the image of the veil from the face of Moses to the minds of the Israelites. The problem, he clarifies, lay not with the message but rather with their spiritual perception; their minds had become hardened. Metaphorically speaking, they wear a veil when reading “Moses” (v. 15; cf. v. 14: “the old covenant”) and therefore miss the life-giving message, converting it to letters chiseled in stone (legalism) rather than perceiving the Spirit that gives life (vv. 6-7).

Faith in Christ removes that veil (vv. 14b, 16), as foreshadowed in Moses removing his veil when entering God’s presence (Exod 34:34).  Now “with unveiled faces,” Paul asserts, Christians have the “boldness” (v. 12), the “freedom” (v.17), to see the glory of God reflected in Christ (“as though reflected in a mirror”; no one can see God directly) and consequently “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (v. 18).

One message that rings through loud and clear is that we are works in progress. Spirituality involves growth, change, transformation—and that incrementally, degree by degree. This evolutionary understanding of spirituality contrasts sharply with the static approach of religious legalism. Noteworthy is the fact that this transformation occurs only as we gaze at the reflected glory of God—in Christ and in the world. We become what we behold.

The passage also raises a crucial question. What is the relationship between Christianity and Judaism? Many understand Paul’s two-covenant thought in this passage as antithetical, as supersessionist in nature; that is, they understand Paul to say that the new covenant, which gives life, has replaced the old covenant, which could lead only to death. Other scholars read the passage differently. They view Moses as prefiguring the glory revealed in Christ. It is a misreading of Moses, brought about by a hardened mind (the veil) that results in legalism and spiritual death. Properly read, the old covenant reveals the Spirit that gives life. Indeed, throughout his letters Paul quotes the Torah to make his case for his understanding of the gospel.

Luke 9:28-36 (37-43)
Today’s Gospel reading has elicited a wide range scholarly commentary. Some focus on details, such as the location of the mountain: Was it Mt. Hermon, near Caesarea Philippi, or Mt. Tabor, near Nazareth?  Others debate over broader issues, such as whether we should view the story as (a) a mystical event experienced by Jesus and later told to the three disciples, (b) a mystical event experienced by Jesus and his inner circle, (c) a displaced resurrection appearance story, or (d) a story created by the early Christian community to express their conviction that Jesus is Lord. However one understands this captivating narrative, three things are certain. First, the Lucan account is dependent on Mark 9:2-8, but it reflects considerable editorial freedom in the retelling. Several of these differences are theologically significant, as we shall see. Second, the transfiguration of Jesus is modeled after the theophany in Exod 24:12-18 and Moses’ experience in today’s Hebrew Bible lesson (Exod 34:29-35). Note the numerous parallels:  the mountain, the cloud, the voice, the frequent use of the term glory, and Moses’ shining face. Striking parallels also exist with the baptism of Jesus. Third, the transfiguration story follows the confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi and Jesus’ first passion prediction. This sequence is significant.

As was stated earlier, the distinctive Lucan elements reveal noteworthy theological themes of Luke-Acts. The first interesting difference is Luke’s dating of the event as “about eight days” (v. 28) after Peter’s confession and Jesus’ passion prediction.  This dating could be equivalent to Mark’s “six days later” (9:2); Luke simply includes the two days on either side.  Other possibilities carry more theological significance. The reference could indicate that the transfiguration foreshadowed the resurrection, which occurred on Sunday, the eighth day. Or the time notation could be an allusion to the Christian day of worship.

The second noteworthy editorial element is the recurring reference to prayer. Jesus and the three disciples go up the mountain to pray (v. 28), and it was while Jesus was praying (v. 29) that the transfiguration occurred. Throughout Luke-Acts, significant events are linked with prayer. For example, it was while Jesus was praying following his baptism (3:21-22) that the Holy Spirit descended upon him and he heard the divine voice confirming his call to ministry.

Luke changed Mark’s suggestion of a “metamorphosis” to read “the appearance of his face was changed” (v. 29). This may be due to the use of metamorphosis in connection with the Greek gods. He did not want his audience to read these elements of Greek mythology into the transfiguration narrative and therefore avoided using a word so weighted with connotations.

Although all three accounts of the transfiguration record the appearance of Moses and Elijah (symbolizing the law and the prophets?), only Luke informs the reader of their conversation with Jesus. They spoke about “his departure (exodus), which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (v. 31). “That the law and the prophets testify to Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection is an important theme in Luke (24:25-27, 44-46)” (Fred B. Craddock, in Craddock, Hayes, Holladay, and Tucker, Preaching through the Christian Year: C [Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press, 1994] 125).

After Peter, John, and James awakened (sleep = faithlessness; cf. 22:46), they beheld the glorious scene. Wanting to prolong the experience, Peter offered to build three tabernacles.  Evidently he interpreted the tableau as in some way a fulfillment of the Feast of Tabernacles; or perhaps the time for the festival was approaching so he suggested that they observe it in such glorious company. However his offer is interpreted, clearly he missed the point. Suddenly enveloped by a cloud (a common biblical symbol that manifests yet conceals the divine presence), the disciples appropriately prostrated themselves in awe and worship.  The scene climaxes in the divine pronouncement: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (v. 36; cf. 3:22; Ps 2:7; Isa 42:1).  The pronouncement confirmed Jesus’ mission and message, including those “hard words” he had recently spoken regarding his forthcoming rejection, suffering, death, and resurrection in Jerusalem and his teachings on discipleship (9:21-27).  Suddenly the disciples were alone with Jesus. The disappearance of Moses and Elijah suggests that Jesus’ words fulfill the law and the prophets. “Listen to him!”

Ronald L. Farmer served as  the Irvin C. and Edy Chapman Dean of the Wallace All Faiths Chapel Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Chapman University. In addition to numerous essays and articles in various books and journals, he is the author of Beyond the Impasse: The Promise of a Process Hermeneutic and Revelation in the series Chalice Commentaries for Today. He now resides in Ecuador with his wife.