This is the text of a sermon for the last Sunday after Epiphany (Transfiguration), in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scripture text it references is Matthew 17:1-9.
How are we to make sense of the transfiguration? What does this encounter of the disciples with a changed Jesus, with light and a voice from heaven, with Moses and Elijah, have to say to us in our own context today?
In the Christian East, the transfiguration has come to be understood in quite mystical terms, and their theologians insist that we cannot fully grasp or dissect an event like this, limited creatures of a much greater God that we are. If that seems like a cop out, let me quote an Orthodox author who wrote that:
“The only driver of an always-dynamic intelligence is the moment one finds oneself in the face of an object which brings one to a stop in the life of love. Intelligence does not result in adoration but before infinity.”
If we here are a community of quite dynamic intelligence (as I have come to know that we are!), saying that the transfiguration is in some sense beyond us is not at all denying the need to press into it with vigour, but an encouragement to do so, since here we have something which can continue to fuel that dynamism.
So, consider that light is an important symbol in Matthew’s gospel, beginning with the star in the east followed by the Magi; also later in Jesus’ first proclamation of his ministry, that “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” Matthew later develops that idea to say that the same light is to be displayed in the life of believers, and the faces of the righteous in heaven shine with light at the end time. Therefore, in this gospel, light is an essential attribute of God and points to God’s final salvation dawning already in the darkness of the world, through the splendor of Christ.
This means that the transfiguration is an encouragement to hope. For all their misunderstanding, confusion and fear, the three disciples on the mountain are given a vision of hope and joyful expectation. It really is “good” for them to be there, and it gives them the foundations for their own understanding and proclamation of the good news later on, after the resurrection. This event then is a potent reminder that God’s last word in Christ is one of life and joy, even if what we experience in the interim is otherwise.
Peter’s suggestion of building dwellings, while it might seem silly, suggests that seeing Moses and Elijah, he thought the final, perfect reign of God was beginning immediately; that Moses and Elijah would stay on earth for the resurrection and the new, blessed era which was now present. He was only partly wrong; because in Jesus that reign of God is begun, even if it is not yet made complete.
In order to make sense of the vision of restoration and hope which the transfiguration offers, we need to remember that back down the mountain, there is the reality of a fallen world, and human beings alienated from God. This is why, after the bit we read this morning, Matthew tells us that immediately after descending the mountain, Jesus is called on to perform an exorcism. It is in that context of fallenness and alienation that, like Jesus, we are called to live and work, always reminded of and holding out to others the possibility of reconciliation and restoration. The light of God, reflected in the face of Christ who is the source of creation in its original goodness, turns its beams upon human beings at the point of our violence and degradation, our oppression and escapism, our loss and alienation, our fear, pride, anger and despair. In the end, human beings are saved through the dual revelation of their own disfiguration and the hope of their transfiguration in Christ.
In the meantime, this in-between time in which God’s purposes for creation are not yet fulfilled, it is in our work and worship (which really are two different faces of the same coin, which is our total commitment to God), that the meaning of these things becomes immediate and present to us. When we participate in the reality which has been revealed, walking by faith (if not yet by sight) in the light which shone from Jesus, then the glory which shone from Jesus’ face, and the future glory of a perfect creation, come together in the glory which is the praise of our hearts and the work of our hands. These are not isolated incidents of glory, but are part of an unbroken strand of faith and hope and love, binding together the whole household of God, in every space and time.
So there is a call to action, here. The hope which is brought to life in us in the light of Christ’s being is not just for our comfort, but is also supposed to spark a way of life in keeping with that hope. We’re not just meant to feel the hope, we’re meant to live it, as active love which yearns for the fullness of that vision at the end of time, and shapes our lives to move and act and speak always in accordance with that vision.
As the community of the church, we are called to make that a reality amongst ourselves, in order that we can then hold it out to the world as their hope, and an invitation to participate in God’s healing of human brokenness.
As Gregory of Nyssa put it, “It is not the sky which has become the image of God, nor the moon, nor the sun, nor the beauty of the stars, nor any other visible creature. You alone have become the image of the nature which surpasses all intelligence, the impression of true divinity, the receptacle of the blessed life: become, in regarding that light, what it is.”
It is the same light of love which overflowed from the inner life of God in creation, and again at the incarnation, which should draw each of us out of an enclosed individualism into the beauty and luminosity of Godly relationship; with God, with each other, and with all of creation.
The transfiguration is God’s answer to the world’s disfiguration, and we are entrusted with it.
May we be faithful stewards of it.