The Transfiguration

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I think the only Anglican habit that I’m still stuck with is that before embarking upon writing my address for the week, I read the lectionary – the set Bible verses for the Sunday ahead. I only occasionally like them enough, or find them challenging enough, that I run with them, but this week was such a week. I think the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus would probably be a story that most progressive preachers would try and avoid, it’s got a lot of fantastical hallmarks, but where would be the fun in that?

I think it’s a curious event in the Jesus narrative. One moment it seems like he is engaged in the normal course of his ministry, teaching and healing others, then a period of time passes and then they go up this mountain to pray. Jesus is there, along with Peter, John, and James. This unusual encounter takes place with two Old Testament prophets: Moses and Elijah. There’s a bit of confusion, a bit of a kerfuffle, a big shiny cloud, God speaks, and then the need for secrecy is reaffirmed, and they come back down the mountain, and everything carries on as normal, and the incident is never brought up again. The event appears in all three of synoptic Gospels – in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. So, first of all, why? Why does this curious event happen here, why does it happen at all, what is the point of this incident?

In all three of the Synoptic Gospels it is preceded by, a paragraph or two back, depending on the Gospel, the discussion between Jesus and Peter that we’re all familiar with, in which Jesus asks ‘who do people, who do the crowds, say that I am?’ And Peter replies… “Some say, you are John the Baptist, some say you are Elijah, some say you’re some other Old Testament prophet.” “But who do you say I am?” “Well, you’re the Messiah of God.”  This is the first time in the Synoptic Gospels that the word ‘Messiah’ is spoken by a character within the narrative, other than the omniscient narrator himself. In English translations it’s the first time the word appears within “quotation” marks, but there aren’t any quotation marks in ancient Greek, you just have to infer speech on the basis of context. And so, as soon as the word Messiah is uttered, Peter and the other disciples are asked to keep that fact secret.

Throughout the Gospels, particularly in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus repeatedly asks for secrecy. There is reference to the disciples receiving secret teachings, there is reference to Jesus asking people he has healed to keep it a secret, but it is here – after Jesus is outed by Peter as the Messiah – that the call for secrecy is communicated with the most urgency. It must not be known that Jesus is the Messiah. The reason for this is not entirely clear. Jesus even says in the Sermon on the Mount, “People do not light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they set it on a lampstand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” And yet in being secretive is this not exactly what Jesus is doing? There have been a number of theories to try and explain this secrecy over the centuries. The two which seem the most plausible to me, are first of all the ‘my time has not yet come’ argument. Which is quite simply the idea that if it was publicly known that Jesus was the Messiah this early on in his ministry, that celebrity attention would get in the way too much, it would hamper his ability to get what he needs done. And secondly, or as well as that, there is the prophecy concerning Elijah.

The Elijah prophecy would have been an issue of particular concern to an early Jewish audience. You will remember that for Jesus to qualify as the Messiah he had to tick certain boxes. Some of those boxes he was able to subvert and interpret in unique ways, tick creatively if you like. But other boxes were so black and white, the criteria to fulfil them so evidently clear, that you could not get around them. And one such box was the Elijah prophecy. In the Hebrew Bible the prophet Elijah does not die, but rather at the allotted time he rides his chariot up into heaven. And the prophecy comes later, that before the coming of the Messiah, Elijah would return, and his presence would herald in the Messiah’s arrival. So, fulfilling that prophecy, ticking that box, had to happen. Interestingly, however, how that box is ticked is not agreed upon by the Gospels writers. They all agree that all of the boxes have to be ticked, but when it comes to Elijah, they tick the box differently.

In the Gospels of Mark and Luke, it is here in the transfiguration event that the box is ticked, but for Matthew this brief encounter on the mountain is not good enough, and so he adds in a few verses which link Elijah to John the Baptist. For Matthew, the spirit of Elijah was working through John the Baptist, and thus that ticked the ‘Elijah returning’ box more definitively. When it comes to fulfilling these Messianic prophecies in the Bible then, we run into a lot of circular arguments. Are they being fulfilled because God has a grand plan, and bringing these messianic prophecies to fulfilment through Jesus is that plan in action? And we’re not just reading about how it transpired 2000 years on? Or does the evolving Jesus narrative in the intervening period between his death and the writing of the Gospels take on a life of its own, and evolve to reflect the demands the Hebrew Bible puts upon it? After all, if the Jesus narrative failed to tick those boxes, and reconcile itself sufficiently with the Messianic tradition as found in the Hebrew Bible, the Jesus movement, which in the early days largely consisted of Jewish converts, would have never gained the traction necessary to grow.

So, returning to question of Jesus’ secrecy. His Messianic identity had to be kept secret because to qualify as the Messiah he had to tick certain boxes. As I’ve said, some of those boxes needed to be ticked before his public-facing Messianic mission could begin, and some afterwards. The Elijah prophecy was one that had to be ticked before, hence the need for secrecy, and hence the importance of the Transfiguration. Okay, so the Transfiguration – Jesus goes up the mountain along with his inner circle, Peter, John and James, when there they eventually encounter Elijah (for the reasons we’ve gone through) and Moses. Moses is the other important part of this equation.

Mount Tabor in Israel.

Mount Tabor in Israel.

In 2015 I visited the spot, Mount Tabor in Israel, where it is traditionally believed that this event took place. It’s about 15 miles west of the Sea of Galilee. The place, as you would expect, has a very Mediterranean feel to it, but it's also not much of a mountain; Israel is pretty flat on the whole. The word ‘mountain’ then is being used for a literary reason; it’s being used to draw a parallel between what Jesus is doing here going up “the mountain” and what Moses did when he went up Mount Sinai. Going up the mountain infers you’re getting closer to God, because God, or the Heavens, are just up there, right? That was the early Hebraic cosmology at least. So, going up a mountain to pray is the best kind of prayer you can do. And once up there on that mountain, in close proximity to the divine, it says that the appearance of Jesus’ face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Again, this is paralleling what happened to Moses when he was on the mountain.

There’s a slight detour I have to go on here because it’s too interesting not to mention. The passage in question about Moses in the book of Exodus reads: “Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” The word ‘shone’ in Hebrew is very similar to the word for horn, as in animal horns. And so, St Jerome, when he translated the Bible into Latin in the late 4th Century, mistranslated the verse. And so it read, “he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation with the Lord.” And this mistranslation endured for centuries. You can find illustrated Bibles from the 13th Century which show Moses with horns. Michelangelo’s Moses, which he sculpted in the 16th Century in Rome, has horns. Or sometimes you’ll find a middle path, in which Moses is depicted as having horns of light. Now I’ve told you about Moses’ horns, you’ll start seeing them everywhere!

Michelangelo’s Moses

Michelangelo’s Moses

So, Moses went up Mount Sinai in the first place, of course, to establish the covenant between God and the Jewish people. By having Jesus in the narrative do the same thing, the writer is making some bold claims about Jesus - that he has come to establish a new covenant - a new covenant which has the seal of approval from none other than Moses himself, demonstrated by his presence. Okay, so Jesus is the Messiah, heralded by both Moses and Elijah. And then, the ultimate seal of approval, the cloud came and overshadowed them; this is a sign that God is close. It is said if you look directly upon God you will die, and so the cloud allows God to get close without accidentally killing someone, Jesus, or one of the three disciples. But they’re afraid of course, and they fall upon the floor. And voice comes from the cloud, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Very similar words to those said when Jesus was baptised in the Jordan. “Listen to him!” This is being directed at the three, Peter, John, and James, who had by faith come to their understanding that Jesus was the Messiah, and as they need to keep this fact secret for the time being, God is at least confirming for them that they’re not wrong it what they believe. They should listen to Jesus, they should trust him, and proceed along with him.

But it’s in a narrative, it's written down, and so of course it’s meant for an audience. The text has a purpose, it’s written to persuade us that Jesus is who they claim him to be. They know it intuitively, they know it in their hearts, and they are reaching desperately for metaphors and associations to persuade us about their experience, about the sense of awe they encounter, about this claim – that Jesus is the anointed one of God. And so, they’re on the floor, and they are afraid. And in Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus comes to them, puts his hands upon them, and says “Get up and do not be afraid.” And then they looked up, and they saw no one there except Jesus himself. So, as I said at the beginning, there are a lot of fantastical elements at play in this story. There are a lot of threads that can be pulled, lots of interesting avenues to explore (some of which we have explored this morning), but in the midst of all this complexity, in the midst of this overwhelming awe that brought the disciples to their knees, Jesus says very clearly, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

Rise up! Keep moving! Keep moving when it's all too much, when we stand against overwhelming odds, when the task ahead is beyond us. Rise up! And keep moving! So, whatever that obstacle is in the forefront of your mind, they’re good words to hear - “Get up and do not be afraid.”

Amen.

 

Lewis Connolly