The Transfiguration of Our Lord in Year A

All creation can look forward in joy to its culmination in God’s future.

Readings for Year A: 2013 - 2014

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary by Dennis Ormseth

 

Transfiguration of Our Lord in Year A

Psalm 2; 99 (alternate)

Exodus 24:12-18

2 Peter 1:16-21

Matthew 17:1-9

 

"'I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill'" (Psalm 2:6); "Extol the Lord our God and worship at his holy mountain; for the Lord our God is holy "(Psalm 99:9). Two mountains figure significantly in our readings for this Transfiguration Sunday, but neither of them is actually Zion, the mountain sung by the Psalmist. The mountain of the first reading is of course Sinai, site of theophanies with Moses and Elijah. The mountain of the Gospel and also referenced in the second reading from 2 Peter goes unnamed, but tradition holds that it is Mount Tabor, in northern Israel, east of Nazareth. Yet the church's reading of either Psalm 2 or 99 with these texts clearly signals that Zion is, as it were, on the horizon. Here at the end of the season of Epiphany, with its concentrated focus on holiness in Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount" behind us and the journey to Zion in the Season of Lent ahead, attention given to the connections of these mountains and the theophanies that link them is richly rewarded with insights regarding care of creation. 

 

The assembly on the mountain in Matthew 17 represents a thick conflation of several events in the history of God’s people, and evokes a strong sense of its being embedded in their life together, extended over the ages. God, as it were, summons to this meeting with Jesus and his disciples on "a high mountain" (17:1) “those two great ancient worthies,” Moses and Elijah (Robert H. Smith’s phrase, from New Proclamation, Series A, 1998-1999, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1998, p. 171). The founding liberator and lawgiver from the exodus from Egypt, and the great prophet from the reign of Ahab and Jezebel in the northern kingdom of Israel, respectively, they have each had an encounter with God on the mountain of Sinai; that of Moses is recorded in our first reading. Comparison of the theophany of Sinai with that of our Gospel shows several elements held in common: each happens “six days later” on a mountain with a special select group; the shining face and skin, the bright cloud and voice from the cloud result in great fear on the part of the bystanders (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Maryknoll, New York:  Orbis Books, 2000, p. 348). Elijah additionally brings to the scene an experience similarly connected to Sinai. In the context of his conflict with Ahab and Jezebel and their priests of Baal, he ascended Sinai alone, where he is caught up in a great wind, an earth-quake and fire, and then hears out of the sheer silence the voice of God (1 Kings 19).

 

It is important to note that in both of these background stories the experience of God is inextricably associated with particularly powerful experiences of the mountain itself. This is strongly emphasized in the Exodus account. As Moses ascends,

 

the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights (24:15-18).

 

We note that what the mountain provides location for, the presence of God, the cloud hides; only when God speaks does the cloud manifest the "glory of the Lord" like "a devouring fire." This all takes place according to a sabbatical sequence, six days and then a seventh as in the very creation itself. Thus do the mountain and cloud participate in the very revelation of the glory which constitutes the people's experience of the holiness of God the Creator. As the psalmist suggests, in the people's experience the holy mountain and the holiness of God are inseparable.

 

The theophany of Sinai is, according to Walter Brueggemann, "originary for Israel as a community of faith," a "trigger for all that follows." This experience of the "unmediated Presence of Yahweh" undergirds all subsequent mediated modes of presence in the priestly cult, the role of Moses, and the Torah (Theology of the Old Testament, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, p568-70). Understandably, therefore, the priestly editors of the book of Exodus have inserted in the text precisely at this point God's directions for the construction of the tabernacle in which Yahweh is to be worshiped, an account which "blends the ancient tradition of the tent of meeting . . .  and the later view of the structure and adornments of Solomon's temple" (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 103, n. 25.1-37). Zion and its temple are indeed visible on the horizon, already from Sinai; in this matter, the church's sighting of it from the story of the transfiguration is no innovation. But its presence there looms more ambiguously and threatening than the Psalmists' praise of its holiness might lead us to expect.

 

The Psalmist tells us that Zion is the seat of royal power; but as Matthew's narrative has already made us aware, Jesus' march toward Jerusalem is shadowed by his insistence that he goes there to die. Indeed, the summoning of Moses and Elijah to the mountain of transfiguration in and of itself constitutes a premonition of this outcome. As Belden Lane observes,

 

The mountain narratives of Moses and Elijah had situated each of them within a context of loneliness and rejection. In going to meet God on the mountain, the one had been scorned by his people, who demanded a golden calf to worship (Ex. 32:1). The other had been threatened by Jezebel, who’d sworn herself to vengeance (I Kings 19:2). In both cases, their “seeing of God” on the mountain was but an interlude in an ongoing struggle, given at a time when the absence of God seemed for them most painfully real (Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Desert and Mountain Spirituality, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 135).

 

The very location of the mountain of transfiguration locates the event within this theo-political struggle:  

 

“[F]ar from the corridors of influence in Jerusalem (or Egypt, for that matter), [both Sinai and Tabor] defy the authority of the state, “clashing with every royal religion enamored of image, vision, appearance, structure.” Coming to Sinai, Moses had witnessed the overthrow of oppression in Egypt.  Elijah came to the mountain fleeing the corrupt regime of Ahab, having just undermined the hegemony of Baal on Mount Carmel.

The mountain of God necessarily brings into question all claims to political power. Its iconographic imagery challenges every human structure (Lane, p. 135).

 

Thus, when Jesus brings to the mountain assembly his disciples Peter, James, and his brother John, we need to be mindful of what Matthew has just reported about them and their mission.

 

 The disciples are the fishermen Jesus has called away from their life by the sea and the hardships of fishing under the oppressive control of Roman imperial rule. Jesus has been traversing Galilee with them, teaching, healing, and feeding people as they went, a journey interspersed by repeated visits to remote areas, including both mountains and the Sea of Galilee. Matthew's reader might well be aware of this constant interest in the natural setting of this journey, which culminates in Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, followed almost immediately, however, by a bitter exchange between Jesus and Peter over Jesus’ future path to Jerusalem and the cross.  It is precisely at this point, when the opposition of his disciples to his disclosure that he will face crucifixion and death before being raised up (Matthew 16:21-28) breaks out in the open, that he ascends the mountain, leading  to the divine instruction from out of the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”

 

The second reading for this Sunday recalls the event of the Transfiguration in the voice of Peter from some time near the end of his life, apparently also in response to the religious challenge from an opponent, suggesting the ongoing relevance of this instruction in the life of the young church:  “You will do well to be attentive to this [account] as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” As indeed do we. The older and wiser Peter sees the pattern shared by these interlocking narratives: these men have been in a dark place, but they are being drawn into the light. Moses, Elijah, and Jesus each went to the remote mountain after experiencing difficulty in the communities for which they are leaders. Away from the political and religious centers of society, each time the manifestation of God on the mountain lends legitimacy to their leadership in a time of conflict, and empowers their future course of action. All three emerge, as it were, from the darkness of those conflicts into the holy light on the mountain, before descending the mountain to resume their leadership according to the will of God.

 

Thus while the presence of Moses and Elijah confirms for Jesus’ disciples his “high rank and holy task,” encouraging them “to follow him in his unrelenting journey to the cross” (Robert H. Smith, p. 171), Jesus’ traverse of this passage from dark to light is in one key respect exceptional. Readers following the lectionary texts of recent weeks; for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany specifically, might recall that we have recently heard from Moses’ farewell address' on Mt. Nebo, in which he exhorted the people "to choose life’” as they prepared to enter the promised land without him. Elijah’s adventure on Sinai followed on an opposite choice by the people and their leaders, once they lived in the land, of the way of death that is manifested in a pervasive drought in the land. In contrast to both Moses’ exclusion from the land and Elijah’s conflict with royal idolatry there, Jesus has gone deeply into the land to engage its people, and has manifested there a benign and restorative presence among them. He has in fact been about the healing of the creation. 

 

The nature of the conflict Jesus faces is clear: it is between the dominion of life and the dominion of death. The conflict between Jesus and his disciples is particularly telling in this perspective. As Robert H. Smith points out, in spite of their experience on the mountain, the disciples do not really hear what Jesus is saying. Matthew brings this section of his gospel to a close with an account of their dispute amongst themselves as to who will be seated in positions of power and authority when Jesus ascends the throne of the kingdom (Matt. 20:20-27), an account that as Smith notes, reverberates with damning significance for our own times:

 

They all wanted to be in charge, to sit on seats of privilege and power. It is not only pharaohs who build pyramids. All the nations do it. Corporations do it. Churches and schools organize hierarchies, and families and clans do it. It all seems so natural. It happens so regularly, so easily, so universally, that we find ourselves thinking, “of course the few were born to give orders, and the many were made to obey!

      But is it natural? Where does it all come from?  From God?  Did God order the universe in such a way that humankind should exercise a ruthless dominion over the trees and rivers, over birds and beasts? Did God’s voice really call out that men should rule over women? The people of the Northern Hemisphere should dominate the poorer nations to the south? Did the finger of God write that we should have social systems that are rigidly hierarchical, authoritarian, and patriarchal? (Smith, pp. 172-73).

 

No, this pattern of domination does not come from God, as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has made clear. Nor is it "natural," in the sense of belonging inherently to the created order, understood as a "web of life" (CF, Larry Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key, New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 260-66). It is those who are poor in spirit, those who lament the absence of righteousness in the land and desire above all its full restoration, the meek who give place to others in the full community of life and who seek peace, even to the point of refusing violence in return for persecution by their and Jesus’ enemies, who will be comforted and inherit the kingdom. Indeed, Jesus’ passage through the countryside constitutes a foretaste of the healing of creation to come with his entry into the full reign of God as servant of all creation. Followers of his way have been warned against “affairs of the heart” which contribute to the patterns of domination that disrupt the good creation. They will be salt and light for a sustained and illuminating demonstration of the kingdom, characterized by obedience to God’s creation-serving law, and genuine and full-hearted love of the other, including non-human creatures.

 

Will the journey to Jerusalem and the cross bring all this promise of creation's healing to naught? Will the dominion of death defeat those who hope and work for the dominion of life? As we prepare to leave the mountain with Jesus and take the Lenten road to Jerusalem, it is important that we recall once more the connection between the mountain and the experience of God's holiness, in this instance on the mountain of the transfiguration. It has been observed that the presumed locus of the transfiguration, Mount Tabor, is a very different place than Mount Sinai. Sinai is high and forbidding, “a place of dark and difficult beauty,” as Belden Lane experienced it on a climb to the peak. For him, “it symbolized the wandering of the children of Israel, the experience of loss and the bread of hardness. The Sinai wilderness is a place far from home, a ‘no man’s land’ of fire and smoke.” Mt. Tabor, on the other hand, is “a cone-shaped peak in Galilee,” appropriately captured in the words of Elisaeus, a seventh-century Armenian pilgrim, who described it as surrounded by “springing wells of water and many densely planted trees, which blossom from the rain of the clouds and produce all kinds of sweet fruits and delightful scents; there are also vines which give wine worthy for kings to drink.” “If Sinai wins the soul by threat and leanness,” Lane comments, “Tabor compels by charm.” “In Jewish history,” he notes, “Tabor is associated with Deborah, the woman of faith and daring who led her people in defeating the captain of the Canaanites and his fearful iron chariots (Judg. 4-5). This mountain is one possessed of an ancient, feminine energy.  It is Mother and Sister, one whose strength is bent toward nurture and wholeness.” As he walked alone in cold rain on Tabor’s lower slopes, Lane found the mountain, “especially in the rain . . . a place of nourishment, a place to rest and be still.” As he comments, in contrast to the landscape of Sinai, Tabor "offers a landscape of accessible and gentle beauty. Like a wet, green breast rising out of the Plains of Jezreel, it is bathed in light, covered with woodland trees and wildflowers” (Lane, pp. 124-25, 130-31).

 

Belden’s description of Mount Tabor matches our expectation that Jesus would go to such a mountain to help bring his disciples to a sense of the beauty of creation as it would be in a world freed from the pursuit of wealth and power and the associated all-encompassing pattern of domination. “The sacred mountain, from Sinai to Tabor to Zion,” comments Lane rightly, “is a place where political priorities are realigned. To flee to the mountain is to identify with the marginalized, with those denied access to the empowerment of the state and thus subject to its wrath. Jesus and his disciples may well have contemplated such things as they walked down Tabor on their way back toward Jerusalem.” But where the desert-mountain tradition “stringently insists that ‘moments of splendor’ serve the purposes of justice and responsibility in the ordinary life” (Lane, p. 135), the more ecologically harmonious experience of Tabor, we want to suggest, encourages the expectation that somewhere ahead lies another mountain that instead invites us to ascend it in hope of encountering more the beauty of the infinite than the terror of injustice, more fascinans than tremendum, more love than dread. This is in any case the kind of mountain we want to associate with Jesus' transfiguration, a mountain which, we note, could be anywhere, given that no booths were placed to mark it alone as the site of Jesus' appearance in glory.

 

We in fact take this to be part of the deep meaning of what happened to Jesus there on Tabor: that “he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” is, as the Orthodox tradition understands it, the sign of things to come for the whole creation. Again Lane comments significantly:

 

Tabor is the mountain of light, taking joy in the greening power of God’s spirit, as Hildegard, the twelfth-century Benedictine nun, described its impulse toward growth. This is a mountain that thrives on abundance and redundancy. It supports a plant life of variegated wonder. The apocryphal Gospel of Hebrews connects its summit with the height of mystical insight; “The Holy Spirit, my Mother, came and took me by the hair and carried me to the great Mount Tabor.” Here is effulgence, an excess of glory (Lane, p. 140).

 

The transfiguration, and the Eastern iconographic tradition that builds upon it, draws us forward with a vision of the “as-yet-unrealized but promised transfigured glory of the entire material world. Because of God having been made flesh in Jesus Christ, humans are able to glimpse the very face of God in matter itself” (Lane, p. 126). God’s love of the creation, so amply exhibited in the reading of the Season of Epiphany, knows no final limit; all creation can look forward in joy to the culmination in God’s future of the reconciliation and incorporation of all things in the glory of God.

 

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

 

 

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