Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Saint John’s Church,Newtonville
August 6, 2017
The Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ
2 Peter 1:13-21
My friends: Of the many “signs and wonders” reported in the canonical Gospels, the story of the Jesus’ “Transfiguration,” recounted by Saint Luke in today’s Gospel, is probably the one most outside our ordinary human experience. Our imaginations can at least grasp changing water into wine; walking on water; healing the sick; even raising the dead. But what in the world are we to make of this strange and curious event on the height of Mount Tabor in first-century Galilee? The New Testament Greek word for “transfiguration” is “metamorphosis,” a visible change in the outward appearance of a body, and its morphing into something else. Ancient Greco-Roman mythology is full of such stories about gods and goddesses changing into other life forms on special occasions; hence, the story of Jesus’ transformation would not have been as strange to Saint Luke’s original Mediterranean audience—especially among the Gentiles for whom he was likely writing—as it may be to us. I suspect that this is the reason for the cautionary note sounded by today’s Second Letter of Peter in the New Testament: “We do not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty”; together with Saint Paul’s statement in Second Corinthians that “we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word.” Something definitive and decisive happened on that mountaintop in Galilee, and Saint Luke is careful to signal that it all took place at a precise moment in human history, and in complete continuity with what God had already done in the past, as we hear in today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Exodus. And these previous theophanies or divine appearances on Mt. Sinai, and subsequently in the Israelite camp, are the harbingers of those other, future, and definitive revelations of the power and glory of God in human history such as the Transfiguration and the Resurrection, when “the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”
So, as it turns out, there is nothing entirely new about the experience of Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor. And to emphasize this essential continuity of the Christian revelation with its indispensible Jewish origins, Saint Luke—like the other evangelists—has Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus in glory on the mountain. Moses, the great lawgiver of the Torah, who led his people to freedom at God’s command through the Sea of Reeds, is there with Elijah, whom the ancient rabbis taught would appear again just before the coming of the Messiah; hence, the “Elijah cup” and the open door at every Passover celebration to this very day. For Saint Luke and the other evangelists, Jesus is the “new Moses,” the “Messiah,” the definitive expression of the Jewish Torah and prophetic tradition, who is about to make his own “Exodus,”—the Greek word blandly translated as “departure” in this morning’s Gospel. In Christ, God has now fulfilled God’s promise spoken by Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you….him shall you heed.” (Deut 18:15)
Now, all of this is very important to our understanding of the meaning of that stupendous event on Mount Tabor in Galilee–especially in its Jewish context—but it still does not tell us much about what actually happened there. What exactly did these three drowsy apostles, Peter, and the Zebedee brothers James and John—the inner circle of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples—see on that mountaintop while they were all, significantly, at prayer? Saint Luke really doesn’t tell us very much, only that the select three had to fight off sleep—just as they would later in the Garden of Gethsemane—and “while he [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Then, “Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.”
Well, I would like to suggest this morning that what happened to the appearance of Jesus himself on that morning atop Mount Tabor is less important than what changed during that mountaintop experience for the disciples themselves: Peter, James, and John! Saint Luke tells us that “eight days after” Peter’s famous profession of faith, when he asserted that Jesus “is the Christ, the Son of the living God” outside the pagan Temple of Pan in upper Galilee—that is, a full Sabbath of days plus one—he and James and John now suddenly realize just what that profession of faith back there in Caesarea Phillipi really and truly meant! If Jesus is the Messiah, then everything has changed for them: the “kingdom of God” is already among them; “eternity” is right here and right now; and the “resurrection of the dead” is the new life in Christ—begun here in time and perfected in eternity. The full significance of those words that had rolled off Peter’s tongue a week earlier, now, on the symbolic “eighth day,” the first day of the week and the biblical day of the “new creation” and “resurrection,” finally sinks into their awareness: Everything has changed—and must change—as fallen humankind and creation itself are about to be re-created and renewed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ: his “Exodus” in Jerusalem, according to Saint Luke. And now, on this particular “eighth day,” this new creation is already dawning on this Galilean mountaintop. Not to put too fine a point on it, the disciples are finally beginning, at least, to get it or, as my mother would say, “Light finally dawns on marble heads”—figuratively and literally in this case. Seized by this radical new awareness of Jesus’ identity, together with the full implications of his suffering- servant messiahship, the slumbering Peter, James, and John experience what the Jewish tradition calls a “bat kol”: an ecstatic experience of the voice of God’s spirit speaking directly to the inner ear with the words, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” No wonder “they were terrified,” just like those first witnesses of the Resurrection later in the Gospel who flee that stupendous scene in terror as well. And yet, perhaps, even more intimidating for these three hapless disciples are the implications of this unfolding awareness for their individual and corporate lives. You see, if Jesus—in all of the fullness of his divine humanity—is the definitive restoration of humankind to the “image and likeness of God”—lost in the Garden of Eden—then Peter, James, and John have just beheld their own human destiny as beloved “children of God” in Christ, stumbling from glory into glory through God’s transforming grace. In the holy Transfiguration of our Lord, the disciples catch just a fleeting glimpse of the radiant and glorified “resurrection body” of Jesus the Christ and a foretaste of the glory to which they themselves are summoned by the Paschal mystery of Christ’s coming suffering, death, and resurrection in Jerusalem. In other words, they have seen their own destiny as beloved “children of God” in today’s glorified body of Jesus Christ, and they have been reduced to awe and silence in the wake of their mountaintop experience in this “cloud of unknowing.”
This integral connection between the Transfiguration and Jesus’ forthcoming descent and ascent into the Paschal mystery in Jerusalem is, I suspect, the reason for the Church’s usual decision to pluck the feast of the Transfiguration from its traditional and proper August 6th celebration each year and to place it before us every year in the early days of our own Lenten journey toward the Resurrection through the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ, the “first-born from the grave.” The Transfiguration is not only a blessed foretaste of the glory for which Christ is destined after his suffering and death on the Cross; it is also a vision of our own human possibility as we struggle through the corrupted currents of this world, and the sufferings of this life, to become by God’s grace what Christ is by his very nature. For whenever we behold an image of Christ, the redeemer of humankind, in any of his manifold appearances, we also see an image of our own destiny as baptized “children of God” and “heirs of eternal life” through the gift and the mystery of Holy Baptism, when we are incorporated into Jesus’ death and resurrection with all of its fruits.
So, my sisters and brothers in Christ, let us pray on this rare and actual August 6th celebration of the Transfiguration—one of the Church’s “luminous mysteries” of the rosary—that we will welcome and hear anew the summons to our own “metamorphosis,” no matter the failures and foibles of our daily struggle for conversion of life. And when the road is hard, and the way seems long; when life feels like more Cross than crown; let us lay hold of the remembrance of Christ’s transfigured glory to sustain us on our pilgrim way. For everything that God has done in Christ, God also promises to do for us when we cooperate with God’s grace. The great Feast of the Transfiguration is a challenge and an opportunity to hear anew God’s words to the terrified apostles in this morning’s Gospel: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” May God grant all of us the grace to hear the voice of Jesus Christ always and to persevere in our own pilgrim journey into the Paschal mystery of his Passion, Death, and Resurrection day by day. AMEN.