The Last Sunday after the Epiphany (A)
February 23, 2020
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light . . . .” With these words drawn from Isaiah, Matthew described the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, the “great light” becomes visibly radiant—brilliant and dazzling to those disciples to whom Jesus had once declared, “You are the light of the world.” Stepping back from the transfiguration story, it is clear that its first purpose is to evoke memories of Moses’ meetings with God on Mount Sinai (esp. Exodus 24 and 34). This recollection is important for exploring the identity of Jesus. Jesus is the prophet like Moses, whom God would raise up after Moses (Deut 18.15, 18). Yet, as the unique Son of God, Jesus surpasses Moses. Moses was the first redeemer, whose intercession on the mountain (a part of that longer story in Exodus), saved his people from annihilation; Jesus is the last redeemer, whose intercession would reach for the entire world. As it was in the beginning, so shall it be in the end. When Jesus, in circumstances that echo the Moses story, goes up on a high mountain and is transfigured into light, we are meant to see that the story has come full circle. The expectations of Judaism for the Messianic “age to come” have begun to find their fulfillment. The prophet of the last days, the one like Moses and Elijah, has appeared, and the glorious light of God’s presence and the resurrection to come have already begun to shine forth. In this moment of transfiguration, Israel’s charter story is being retold around the figure of the Messiah, the embodiment of true Israel.
As Matthew has organized his gospel, this episode of transfiguration picks up earlier themes to repeat them for emphasis (God’s voice at Jesus’ baptism), or to complete them (Peter’s earlier confession of Jesus as the Son of God is here trumped by God’s own confession). Yet, oddly, this story, reaching backwards more than a thousand years, so rich in associations and resonances, completely lacks the sort of interpretive comment so common in Matthew—“and this happened in fulfillment of such and such a Scripture.” Leaving a space for contemplation and interpretation like the benches set before prominent works of art, a silent invitation to enter and extravagantly explore. But I’ll leave any more of that prospecting, whether backwards in Matthew or Exodus, for you to do. For with our own march to the cross about to commence, it is worth considering how the transfiguration looks forward.
Our story has a remarkable twin, a dark doppelgänger, in the account of Jesus’ execution, in chapter 27 (vv.32-54). In the transfiguration, a private epiphany, an exalted Jesus, face and garments shining brightly, stands on a high mountain. He is flanked by two religious giants of the past. All is brilliant light. But at the end is a public spectacle, a humiliated Jesus, whose garments, stained with dirt and blood, have been torn from him, divided among pagan soldiers. He is raised up on an ignominious cross. He is flanked by two common, convicted criminals. All is darkness. A near perfect antithetical parallelism, a diptych in which the two panels or plates have similar lines but different colors.
It is striking, important, that in each scene those looking on are overwhelmed by fear. In each case, and only in these two scenes, Matthew describes the human response as extreme fear bordering on terror (the RSV’s “filled with awe” does not begin to capture the moment). It is equally striking that in each case Jesus is confessed to be the Son of God, by God on the one hand, and, amazingly, by a centurion, on the other. It is precisely this confession—that is, the very core substance, the theology or Christology of Jesus Christ—that draws these two radically contrasting scenes into a paradoxical unity. When the two panels of this diptych are observed, moving from one to the other, and back again, one has to find the way to hold (and behold) transfiguration and crucifixion at one and the same time. As God’s Son, it is Jesus’ calling to exist in these polarities, and in the whole of human experience. Though it may tease more than satisfy us, the logic goes something like this: because the Son of God is the Messiah, because deity and humanity combine to define this person, the pattern long seen in the prophetic message of suffering and salvation, tribulation and vindication, must play itself out in him. The prophetic messages of doom and consolation must have their resolution. So, Jesus is exalted and humiliated, surrounded by saints and encircled by sinners, clothed in light and yet wrapped in a garment of deepest darkness, before the light will shine again.
I am not a fear-monger; those words of reassurance spoken to terrified disciples on that mount—"get up, do not be afraid”—have been spoken to us as well. But at the same time, I think it is critical to engage the fact that at each extreme— transfiguration and crucifixion—the human response is, in Matthew’s mind, unmitigated fear. I say “unmitigated” because for Jews in Jesus’ day or Moses’, God’s becoming visible, God’s very drawing near, was a cause of abject fear, not awe or reverence as we usually think of these things. While in some cases, it may have been the sort of fear that goes with the uncanny, otherworldly, in most cases, whether it seems primitive to us or not, it was a firm belief that to see God was to die. This is a part of the Moses story. For the people who stood at the foot of the mount as the thunder, smoke, and fire descended on the summit, God’s drawing near was a terrifying matter, and the closer one came, the dimmer one’s chances seemed to be. This had not changed in Jesus’ day. Indeed, Jesus himself suggested that it was not the human enemy one should fear, but rather the One who is able to destroy soul and body in Gehenna. Jesus was not a fear-monger, nor did he use fear to motivate. His companions were terrified for good reason, until Jesus’ words of reassurance reached their ears.
And yet we have our fears, rational or irrational, and we are sometimes afraid. And if we look closely, we may detect a Jesus praying in a garden, navigating these same fearful waters. Before we come to resurrection, the meaning of Jesus hangs between the glory of transfiguration and the darkness of crucifixion. The coming weeks will give us so many snapshots of fearful situations, of cowardice and bravery, and cowardice overcome. We will remember the incalculable price paid so that human fear might be assuaged—and the immensity of that price says something about the unmitigated and authentic fear that was addressed. It will be a time for us to look anew at the reassurance that has come to us in our times of fear, and also to reconsider our calling to be agents of that same life-giving reassurance.
The Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
© 2020 Philip H. Towner