The Transfiguration of Our Lord in Year A

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary for the Sundays after Epiphany, 2017

 

By Dennis Ormseth

 

 

 

Transfiguration of Our Lord, February 26

Psalm 2

Exodus 24:12-18

2 Peter 1:16-21

Matthew 17:1-9

 

Mountains matter.  Beginning with the readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, in which the mountains were called on by the prophet Micah to witness God's controversy with God's people, we have sought and found in the sayings of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount material grounding for an Earth-honoring faith. Now with the readings for the Sunday of the Transfiguration of our Lord, the mountains nearly speak for themselves, demanding our attention as part of some of the most important, defining narratives of the biblical tradition.

 

The texts constitute a thick conflation of several events in the history of God’s people, extended over the ages.  God, as it were, summons to the high mountain of the Transfiguration “those two great ancient worthies,”  Moses and Elijah, 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 (Robert H. Smith’s phrase, from New Proclamation, Series A, 1998-1999, p. 171). Amplifying this look backwards, the first reading recalls Moses’ own encounter with God on Mt. Sinai. A comparison of these stories produces several elements held in common, which serves to tie them intimately together: each happens on a mountain, “six days later”, 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: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 348.)  Elijah brings to the scene an experience similarly connected to Sinai, as well. In the context of his conflict with Ahab and Jezebel and their priests of Baal, he ascends Sinai alone.   There he is caught up in a great wind, an earthquake and fire, and then hears out of the sheer silence the voice of God (1 Kings 19).  Belden Lane explores the connections here:

 

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.  Oxford:  Oxford Univeersity Press, 1998, p. 135).

 

Thus the pairing of Moses and Elijah on Sinai with Jesus on Tabor lends political significance to the narrative of the Transfiguration. Tabor is thereby associated with a challenge to entrenched political power: “Lying far from the corridors of influence in Jerusalem (or Egypt, for that matter), the mountains

 

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. Similarly, at Tabor, the transfiguration reaches beyond the present failure of political justice in Jerusalem to affirm an unrealized future where Christ is king (Lane, p. 135).

 

Jesus brings to the mountain assembly his disciples Peter, James and his brother John, the fishermen to whom we were introduced on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany as he called them 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.  Their journey culminates just prior to their ascent of the mountain 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 the opposition of his disciples to his disclosure that he will face crucifixion and death before being raised up (Matthew 16:21-28) that leads 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 continued immediate 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, also.  The older and wiser Peter sees what these narratives share:  each of these men has 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 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 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). But Jesus’ traverse of this passage from dark to light is in one key respect different.  Readers of our comment on the text for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany might recall that we have recently heard from Moses’ farewell address from 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’ prior 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 been about the healing of the creation.

 

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.  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 (see our comment in this series on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany). 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 dominations that disrupt the good creation (see our comment on the Sixth Sunday). 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 (see our comments on the Fifth and Seventh Sundays). But for all that to take place he needs first to go to Jerusalem to confront the authorities that hold the land in destructive bondage to the pursuit of power, privilege and wealth that will result in its ecological devastation and abandonment (see our comment on the Sixth Sunday).

 

As we prepare to leave the mountain with him and take the Lenten road to Jerusalem, however, it is important that we take note of both the specific location and the actual event of Jesus’ transfiguration. Again we would urge, the mountain itself matters. It has been observed that Mount Tabor, the presumed locus of the transfiguration, 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 contrast matches our expectation that Jesus would go to such a mountain as Tabor 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 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 hope that somewhere ahead lies another mountain that instead invites us to ascend it more with the beauty of the infinite than the terror of injustice, more fascinans than tremendum, more love than dread. 

 

We in fact take that to be the deepest 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.  A recent visit by this writer to the sanctuary of Sant' Apollinare in Classe, outside of Ravenna, Italy, where the scene of the Tranfiguration fills the apse, confirms this possibility.  Moses and Elijah rest on clouds to the left and right of the star-studded cosmic field which surrounds a cross that bears the face of Jesus at its center.  Below them, trees, flowers, birds and animals of the forest delight the eye, while sheep of the parish fold and their bishop walk amongst the lilies. 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 readings 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.  This is, indeed, an Earth-honoring faith.

 

 

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