Transfiguration & Lent
Matthew 17:1-9, II Peter 1:16-21
Jesus has been traveling with his disciples in the Gentile territory of Tyre and Sidon and Caesarea Philippi. It has been a learning trip for his followers.
As they continue to travel, they make their way to Mount Hermon. It is the highest mountain in Palestine. 10,000 feet high. Jesus leaves nine of his followers at the base of the mountain, and takes his three closest friends, Peter, James & John, with him. He goes to find a solitary place to pray.
As he prayed a dramatic turn of events takes place that startled them. Jesus was suddenly changed in appearance He was transfigured. The original language says, He was “metamorphosized”, just like a caterpillar that is transformed into a butterfly. His face shone like the sun. His clothing became brilliant, and he took on a glory such as they had never seen before. And as the disciples watched, two other men miraculously appeared along side him. It was Moses and Elijah, engaged with Jesus in conversation. Luke tells us that they talked about his approaching death.
His three disciples are flabbergasted. They stammer for words. Peter is the one that finds his tongue first and says to Jesus, “Wow. It is good that we are here! Let me make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Of course, he didn’t know what he was saying, but that’s normal for Peter.
It is at that moment, a bright cloud of unusual intensity descended, enclosing the men gathered there. A voice spoke from the cloud. “This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him.” Then in an instant it was all over. The voice was silenced. The cloud disappeared. Moses and Elijah were no longer there, and the three disciples saw the Jesus they had known, looking like his old familiar self, and standing there alone.
The question rises to the fore, “What was this all about? What did it mean?”
The story placed in its setting
Just a week before the transfiguration, Jesus had passed on the stunning news to his followers, “We are going to Jerusalem, and when we get there I am going to be killed.” For the disciples this was unbelievable, and Peter takes a hold of Jesus and actually rebukes him and tells him “That can never happen. No way!”
Jesus had responded to Peter, “Get behind me Satan.” It is obvious that Peter’s words had struck a chord of vulnerability in Jesus. Perhaps the prayer in Gethsemane was already on his mind, “Father if it be possible, let this cup pass from me….” It may have been this vulnerability that caused him to pause in his journey and go on a brief prayer retreat with his closest friends. Perhaps to pray about this renewed temptation. For the pressure is mounting. The cross is looming larger every day.
For whose benefit was the event?
I suspect it was for Jesus primarily. Peter has insinuated that Jesus need not die, just as Satan had earlier on the mount of temptation “the angels will guard you lest you dash your foot against a stone”. In this new encounter God gives confirmation to Jesus that he was heading in the right direction and that his life must be offered. But God may also be granting him courage for the difficult journey ahead.
But it may have been for the disciples’ benefit as well. At Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus had asked the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter had blurted out his answer, without having thought about it. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus responds with exultation, “you’re right. No one else has revealed that to you, but my father in heaven.” But even after saying it, Peter did not understand anything about what he had just said. But on this mountain, he and his friends experienced a revelation of the full implication of what he had said.
Years later Peter refers back to this same momentous event. He is arguing against those who are distorting the Christian message. He says:
We did not follow cleverly devised myths
when we told you about the power
and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,
for we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.
For he received honor and glory from God the Father
when that voice was conveyed to him by the majestic glory, saying
“This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
“We ourselves” Peter continues:
“We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven,
while we were with him on that holy mountain.”
For if the days ahead are going to be difficult for Jesus, they are going to be devastating to Peter and his friends. It is almost like God is giving these early followers something to remember, as they are going through their own tough times.
The lectionary placement
But now let us zoom down the centuries to our own day. Some years ago, those who arranged the lectionary readings for the use of churches did a very interesting thing. They arranged the readings so that each year the story of the transfiguration comes just before the beginning of Lent. In the middle of this week we shall celebrate Ash Wednesday. We will then enter a 7-week period where our focus will be on the cross, the death, the suffering of Christ, and hear the call to renewed penitence. We will dress our churches in dark purple and sing songs in a more minor key.
BUT… before we get to Wednesday we are asked to think about transfiguration.
Lent will focus on his humiliation, but the transfiguration reveals his majesty. Lent will be preoccupied with his death, but the transfiguration gives us a brief foretaste of His Resurrection to life!
The lectionary has done this kind of thing before. Before we enter the Advent season in December, we are introduced to Christ the King Sunday. Before we get caught up in the Christmas story with the baby in the manger, we need to note that we are talking about the coming of a King to create a kingdom. And now, before we enter Lent, we are introduced to Resurrection glory – part 1
Why this odd connection? When ever Jesus talked to his followers about his death, he talked about his resurrection. The one must not be named without the other.
The church wants us to enter fully into Lent as we head towards Good Friday and through the 40 days of somber reflection, but before we do, we need to hear the rest of the story, lest we enter into despondency, or engage in morbid self flagellation, or even worse lest we see Jesus as a victim for whom we should feel sorry! Heaven forbid. We should be saying “What love!” not “What suffering!”
The Eastern Church insists that a bit of Easter should punctuate every Lenten service, with the thought “It may be Friday, but Sunday’s coming!” It may be death, but life is just around the corner.
This morning we are going to celebrate Holy Communion.
Western Christianity says this is a service of penitence and confession. The bread and the wine represent his broken body and shed blood.
The Eastern Christianity says this is a meal where the risen Christ meets us, and breaks bread with us and shares with us the cup of salvation, along with hope, peace & new life!
It is both. But this morning the songs are songs of triumph. The words of the communion service are words of thanksgiving and celebration. Thanks be to god!