Archives For Transfiguration

The Transfiguration is this Sunday, a scene that many preachers (color me guilty) get wrong but Peter (no matter how many times we make him the patsy in the story) gets right.

Here’s a transfigured Transfiguration sermon.

“Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

If you’ve ever sat through more than a handful of sermons, or endured even a couple of mine, then chances are you already know how the preaching from this point on the mountaintop is supposed to go.

I’m supposed to point the finger at Peter and chalk this episode up as yet another example of obtuse, dunder-tongued Peter getting Jesus bassakwards. I’m expected to chide Peter for wanting to preserve this spiritual, mountaintop experience.

From there, preaching on the Transfiguration is permitted to go in 1 of 2 ways.

I’m allowed to pivot from Peter’s foolish gesture to the (supposedly sophisticated) observation that discipleship isn’t about adoring glory or mountaintop experiences; no, it’s about going back down the mountain, into the grit and the grind of everyday life, where we can feed the hungry and cloth the naked and do everything else upper middle class Christians aren’t embarrassed to affirm.

Or-

Rather than pivot to the poor, I can keep the sermon focused on Peter.

I can encourage you to identify with Peter, the disciple whose mouth is always quicker than his mind and whose ambition never measures up to his courage.

I could preach Peter to you and comfort you that Peter’s just like you: a foolish, imperfect follower who fails at his faith as often as he gets it right. And, yet, Jesus loves him (and you) and builds his Church on him.

That’s how you preach this text:

Go back down the mountaintop, back into ‘real life.’

Or, look at Peter- he’s just like you.

Given the way sermons on the Transfiguration always go, you’d think these are the only two options allowed.

——————

Except-

As cliched as those interpretations are, they’re not without their problems.

For one-

I just spent the last year fighting stage-serious cancer, during which time I wasn’t able to go much of anywhere or do much of anything much less venture out into the world’s hurt, roll up my sleeves, and serve the poor. I wasn’t strong enough to do that kind of thing anymore.

So discipleship can’t merely be a matter of going back down the mountain because such a definition excludes a great many disciples, including me.

For another-

If this is nothing more than another example of how obtuse Peter is, how Peter always manages to get it wrong, then when Peter profess “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah” 

Why doesn’t Jesus correct him?

Why doesn’t Jesus rebuff Peter and say: ‘No, it is good for us to go back down the mountain to serve the least, the lost, and the lonely?’

Why doesn’t Jesus scold Peter: ‘Peter, it’s not about spiritual experiences,   the Son of Man came to serve?’

If Peter’s offer is such a grave temptation, then why doesn’t Jesus exhort him like he does elsewhere and say: ‘Get behind me, satan?’

If Peter is so wrong, then why doesn’t Jesus respond by rebuking Peter?

In fact, here on the mountaintop, it’s the only instance in any of the Gospels where Jesus doesn’t respond at all to something someone has said to him. This is the only instance where Jesus doesn’t respond.

I wonder-

What if Jesus doesn’t respond because, more or less, Peter’s right.

—————-

Ludwig Feuerbach, an awesomely bearded 19th century critic of religion, accused Christians that all our theology is really only anthropology, that rather than talking about God, as we claim, we’re in fact only speaking about ourselves in a loud voice.

There’s perhaps no better proof of Feuerbach’s accusation than our propensity to make Peter the point of this scripture. To make this theophany, anthropology. To transfigure this story into something ordinary.

Just think-

What would Peter make of the fact that so many preachers like me make Peter the subject of our preaching? Which is but a way making ourselves the focus of this story.

Don’t forget that this is the same Peter who insisted that he was not worthy to die in the same manner as Christ and so asked to be crucified upside down.

More than any of us, Peter would know that he should not be the subject of our sermons. Peter would know that he’s not the one we should be looking at in this scene.

————–

I wonder-

Does Jesus not respond because what Peter gets right, even if he doesn’t know exactly what he’s saying, is that gazing upon Christ, who is charged with the uncreated light of God, is good.

Not only is it good, all the sermons to the contrary to the contrary, it is the essence of discipleship.

Indeed in this image of the transfigured Christ Peter sees the life of all lives flash before his eyes. In one instant of transfigured clarity, Peter sees the humanity of Jesus suffused with the eternal glory of God, and in that instant Peter glimpses the mystery of our faith: that God became human so that humanity might become God.

This is where the good news is to be found.

Not in Peter being as dumb or scared as you and me.

Not in a message like ‘serve the poor’ that you would still agree to even if you knew not Christ.

No, the good news is found in the same glory that transfigured the face of Moses and dwelt in the Temple and rested upon the ark and overshadowed Mary pervading even Jesus’ humanity and also, one day, ours.

God became like us, that’s what Peter sees; so that, we might become like God, that’s what Peter eventually learns.

The light that radiates Jesus’ flesh is the same light that said ‘Let there be…’ It’s the same light that the world awaits with groaning and labor pains and sighs too deep for words. It’s the light that will one day make all of creation a burning bush, afire with God’s glory but not consumed by it.

Peter’s right.

It is right and good, always and everywhere, to worship and adore God became man, and, in seeing him, to see ourselves taken up into that same glory.

It is right and good, always and everywhere, to anticipate our flesh being remade into God’s image so that we may be united with God.

It is good, for just as Christ’s humanity is transfigured by glory without ceasing to be human so too will our humanity be called into union with God, to be deified, without our ceasing to be creatures.”

That’s the plot of scripture. That’s the mystery of our faith.

————–

Not only is Peter right, all the other sermons on this passage go in the wrong direction. It’s not about going back down the mountain. Rather the entire Christian life is a sort of ascent, venturing further and further up the mountain, to worship and adore the transfigured Christ and, in so doing, to be transfigured ourselves.

If we’re not transformed, what’s the point of going back down the mountain? We’d be  down there, no different than anyone else, which leaves the world no different than its always been.

You can almost ask Jesus. Peter’s right.

What Peter gets wrong isn’t that it’s good to be there adoring the transfigured Christ. What Peter gets wrong is thinking he needs to build 3 tabernacles.

Elijah and Moses maybe could’ve used them, but not Jesus.

Jesus’ flesh, his humanity, is the tabernacle.

*David Bentley Hart: The Uncreated Light

This is from friend, Janet Laisch. Here she takes a look at the Transfiguration’s depiction in Christian art. ARTSTOR_103_41822001544848Most of us would like to see an image like the one above–a beautiful person through whom God’s light emanates and makes His presence in our lives known here on Earth. This mosaic depicts the Transfiguration, said to have occurred on Mount Tabor in Israel near the Sea of Galilee (map shown below),  as described in the book of Mark, and depicted in art beginning in the sixth century
Mark wrote about the transfiguration,

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
galileeSaint Catherine’s Monastery (image shown below) at Mount Sinai, Egypt, is the very location of the first theophany when God appeared to Moses as a burning bush as described in Exodus 3 and to Elijah, though only in a soft whisper as accounted in the book of Kings.
It is inside Saint Catherine’s monastery that the earliest, from 565-6, surviving image of Christ’s transfiguration can be found.
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In the apse, just above the high altar a team of mosaic artisans laid tesserae, cut semi-precious stones, glass and gold and set them directly into wet plaster to adhere to the wall.  Each character from the Transfiguration can be identified from left to right:  Elijah stands with his fingers blessing Christ, a young clean-shaven John kneels, turning his head toward Christ, a gray haired and bearded Peter is laying down, turning his head toward Christ, a young, bearded James kneels and turning his head toward Christ, and Moses stands on the right blessing Christ.  Christ invited the three apostles closest to him to ascend Mount Tabor, knowing they would experience together God first-hand.
In the center, Christ is enveloped in a mandorla–an Italian word for almond which results from two circles overlapping –and used in Christian art to symbolize the sacred moments when the human and divine meet and which transcend time and space. Within it, the blue bands become darker as they move toward Jesus. As divinity increases, there is no way to depict its brightness, except by darkness.The darkest color represents the “uncreated light” of God; God is dark because He existed before He created light for all the world.
From Christ and from the mandorla, rays of light emanate, touching the prophets and apostles. Christ’s ring finger and thumb form a circle– the alpha and omega– the beginning and the end. A dark blue band surrounds this scene decorated with medallions of the twelve Apostles. The three Apostles included in the Transfiguration have been replaced by medallions of Paul, Thaddaeus and Matthias. The base of the apse is bordered by another series of fifteen medallions with busts of the Prophets, including Jesus’s human predecessor, King David in the center.
ARTSTOR_103_41822001544848038This mosaic should be understood according to its placement in the church–above the high altar where the sacrament of holy communion occurs. Congregants experience Christ as truly present during Communion through bread and wine.
Through communion and prayer at the high altar, this scene served a purpose to inspire a Holy vision or at least to enable the viewer to contemplate the event and feel invited to partake in it.
Furthermore, the Transfiguration image should be understood in context of the images surrounding it just as one story in the bible has greater meaning when understood in the context of the continuity of the old and new testament, this image has greater meaning than a single image.
335-066It is Christ’s sacrificial role that is particularly important (see image above). Four symbols along the vertical axis represent God incarnate:
(1) Jesus Christ in the mandorla
(2) directly above is a cross in a medallion–symbolizing Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
(3) overlapping this cross is an image of a lamb –recalling John’s description of Christ as a sacrificial lamb in Revelations 5:6
(4) and directly below Peter is a medallion of King David, to whom Jesus is a descendant by blood through Mary.
The juxtaposition of God’s incarnation and transfiguration stories is popular in manuscript illumination as well, particularly after the iconoclasm controversy resolved. In an illuminated manuscript from circa 1025, (image shown below), the vellum image is divided into two registers. In the top register, the artist depicted the nativity when God became incarnate and in the bottom register, the Transfiguration. In both registers Jesus is larger than the other figures, establishing His greater importance through size.
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Too, this mosaic (image above) is on the east end of the church where the sun rises and where Christ will come again. There is a direct link between this theophany and Christ’s Second Coming. God becoming man is necessary before the second coming when Christ will raise from the dead and make Creation whole again through our unity with God. Humankind can only ascend and become deified as gods– with a lowercase g– and mirror God’s image because God had descended to the earth and lived among us.
Looking again at the mosaic at the Monastery, the apostles witness that which the old testament prophets had until the Transfiguration only looked forward–God standing before them in human form. Thus, the continuity between the old and new testament is represented (see image below).  Place your finger on Elijah who stands to Christ’s left and stop at the image of John the Baptist in a medallion. Here John the Baptist is the new Elijah–they are two prophets who went against the grain of society.
Now look at Moses and trace your finger to the right stopping at the image of Mary, Mother of Jesus in a medallion. The first theophany is highlighted twice more in the mosaics of Moses loosening his sandals (image below) and Moses receiving the law tablets (image below). If we understand the continuity of the old and new testament, we may see the relationship between God’s first theophany and the incarnation of God at Christ’s birth.
Mary’s womb like the burning bush contained God’s light and so God’s appearance to Moses in a burning bush is analogous to the birth of Jesus Christ.
And too the appearance of God on Mount Sinai is analogous to the transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor.
335-066Another surviving Transfiguration apse mosaic can be found at the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna (image above), Italy dating from 533-549, though it is depicted symbolically rather than figuratively. The man standing in the center is not Christ but rather the Bishop of Ravenna who strategically aligns himself with the story (image below). He is symbolically deified. To his left and right are a total of twelve sheep representing his “flock” or church members.  Above them is the transfiguration scene, with Christ symbolically represented as a cross in a circular “mandorla.”  Like the previous mandorla, it along with the gold background symbolically represent a timeless, eternal image. The artist does not attempt to convey a realistic space. To the left of the cross is a single lamb, most likely Peter, the only apostle who spoke to Jesus during the transfiguration and to the right, James and John are depicted as lambs.  Above the cross on the left is Moses and the right Elijah. From the top, a hand descends symbolically as God’s theophany when He spoke and enveloped them in a cloud.
The Transfiguration and the end of time are combined in one scene. The lush green background filled with lambs references the end of time when God’s Creation is made whole again.  Above the scene there are two city gates, on the left is Jerusalem and on the right is Bethlehem with six lambs ascending the hill, referencing the continuity of the Old and New Testament through the juxtaposition of these old and new testament cities. Above from left to right are the four evangelists in symbolic form, the eagle John, the winged man, Matthew, Christ Pantokrator-a compound Greek word meaning all accomplishing, the Lion Mark, and the Ox Luke.  This image aligns the Transfiguration with the end of time when Creation is restored.

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Unlike earlier representations, Renaissance and Baroque examples typically depict God’s appearance as a cloud at the Transfiguration (see three examples below). “Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
Also the colors are reversed from earlier mandorlas since these examples show brighter color resulting closer to Jesus. These later images remind us too of Christ’s apotheosis when He is raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father.
Transfiguration_RaphaelRaphael painted the Transfiguration in about 1520. The account of the Transfiguration is followed in this work of art as it is in the bible by the episode of Jesus healing a boy with an evil spirit.

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Gherardi,_Cristofano_-_Transfiguration_-_1555The Mandorla in the Transfiguration images also aligns this story with the promise of Christ’s Second Coming when all the world will be healed. Representations of the Second Coming show Christ surrounded by the mandorla, familiar Transfiguration iconography.  At the transfiguration, Peter does not want to wait for the Second Coming as he prefers to stay on Mount Tabor where he feels an intense unification with Christ. Mark wrote,”Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”  God became man so that we can begin the process of becoming whole again on Earth.
Fortunate people recognize when they have experienced such a theophany at work in their lives so they too can become the person God intended for them to be. If any of us experience a theophany, God’s intense presence in this lifetime,  like Peter, why would we ever want to go back down the mountain?

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