Friday, February 5, 2016

Transfiguration: A Tease of How the Story Ends

Laurie and I sometimes watch the show Extreme Weight Loss with Chris Powell.  Each week Chris Powell invites someone to embark on the “transformation of a lifetime”.  In the middle of every two-hour episode there is a “tease” that advertises the final “reveal” that will come at the end of the show.  This is when the “transformed” participant reveals their new look to astonished friends and family.  The “tease” comes as the participant is smack-dab in the middle of his or her yearlong journey of transformation.  The TV audience does not yet know how the story will end but the “tease” is enough to makes us want to keep watching to see how it turns out. 

A participant on Extreme Weight Loss undergoes
the "transformation of a lifetime"
 The Transfiguration seemed like that kind of event for Jesus’ disciples.  It comes, if you will, in the middle of their “journey of transformation” with Jesus and was, in a sense, a “tease” of the final “episodes” of Jesus’ earthly life—the Resurrection and Ascension.  We see Jesus exalted and recognized for who he truly is, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God.

The story is kind of mysterious—and often overlooked in the Western Protestant Church.  The Catholic theology of the Rosary refers to the Transfiguration as one of the five luminous mysteries[1]. The bottom line is we don’t know exactly what happened up on that mountain but it was clearly significant enough that, even though Jesus clearly asked for what happened on that mountain to stay on that mountain, it eventually got talked about—and was later written down.  All three synoptic Gospels (Mark 9:2-8, Matthew 17:1-9, and Luke 9:28-36) record their own version of this event.  In addition, 2 Peter 1:16-18 refers to it.  Interestingly John (who was alleged to have been an eyewitness) doesn’t include the story of the Transfiguration in his Gospel, although John 1:14 may be an allusion to it. 

What seems evident is that on this night Peter, James, and John got a clearer vision of who Jesus was.  They may have suspected his identity before this night, but after this experience they know for sure that this is no ordinary Rabbi they are following. This doesn’t mean they won’t falter in their belief—clearly they do!  But in the end, after they are restored, they have this vision of Jesus in their memory and it helps them live out their call as Apostles, who were responsible for starting the Church and spreading the message of Jesus around the ancient world.

Mark, which most scholars consider to be the oldest account of the life of Jesus, places this event it right in the middle of his telling of the story—and I think that placement is intentional.  It serves as the “turning point” of Mark’s narrative.  Until now, Jesus and his followers have been in ministry in Galilee.  Just before this scene (Mark 8:31-34) Jesus gives the first of three warnings to the disciples about what lies ahead of them in Jerusalem. Peter, however, wants no part of it and Jesus rebukes him for his comments.  The same Peter who Jesus had just called “the Rock” on which he would build his church is now referred to as “Satan”, an impediment to Jesus fulfilling his calling.   Peter must have felt emotional whiplash after these conversations.  All of the disciples are no doubt confused at this moment about what is going on—about who this guy is they have invested so much in following.  After this event, Jesus and his followers will set their face toward Jerusalem and the mood will continue to darken as the rag-tad band moves ever closer to Jerusalem.

According to Mark, the Transfiguration takes place somewhere up in the mountains above Caesarea–Philippi.  (At least that is where the previous scene in Mark 8 occurs. Scholars actually debate which mountain this was.)  All the Gospels agree that the other nine disciples stayed behind wile Jesus took his three closest friends on this “camping trip”.  While they are there, Peter, James, and John are permitted a glimpse of Jesus that they had never seen before and they hear a voice say “This is my son the beloved.  Listen to him.”  Jesus is revealed in all his glory; the disciples see the fullness of who he was, is, and will always be standing before them. According to the story, Moses and Elijah, two great heroes of the Jewish faith, were also present for this event.   Peter, James, and John don’t really understand all that they see that night but the event clearly sticks with them for the rest of their lives.

I think the Church Fathers got it right when they placed this glimpse of the glory of God right before we head into Lent and Holy Week. The Sunday before Ash Wednesday is Transfiguration Sunday (in most Western Protestant churches) and we usually hear the story of Peter, James, and John’s magnificent “vision” of Jesus on the mountaintop.  The next time we gather the mood is much more somber.  The liturgical colors have shifted from white to gray/black and soaring visions of Jesus are replaced with warnings from the Old Testament prophet Joel that tell us to rend our hearts and not our clothes.  We have the imposition of the ashes as an outward sign of our desire for God to strip away layers of falsehood and bring to light and purge away those things that impede our relationship with God. This can be challenging work but the vision glimpsed on Transfiguration Sunday reminds us of the goal toward which we strive.  It inspires us to persevere toward the goal of total transformationinto our true self—revealing our glory, the fullness of who God has created us to be, to the world.

Perhaps Jesus’ message to Peter, James, and John—and to us during our Lenten journey—is “stay with me to the end”.  I know there are some dark and difficult days ahead but believe me, you want to see how this “episode” ends. 

[1] The others are the baptism of the Lord, the wedding at Cana, the proclamation of the kingdom, and the institution of the Eucharist.  The Rosary also includes five joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries.

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