The Last Sunday after the Epiphany: Transfiguration Sunday (3 March 2018)

March 3, 2019 | by Robert Gnuse

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Exodus 34:29-35 Psalm 99 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 Luke 9:28-36 (37-43)

Exodus 34:29-35
The shining face of Moses is a strange story. The purpose of the story is to really speak of how the glory of God is so great that even in a secondary, somewhat reflected form it can be overwhelming. This shining face bespeaks the holiness of God that secondarily transfers to the face of Moses. so that Moses has to wear a veil to protect the people from its brightness, presumably. Only at those times when he is delivering the Law to them does he not wear the veil. When he returns to speak to God, he takes the veil off. (I suppose he has to get his face recharged.) That he does not wear the veil when speaking about the Law implies that heeding the Law is an important holy moment, also. Maybe that is the ultimate message of the text.

Critical scholars have sometimes suspected that the glowing face may really bespeak a “melammu,” a bright ring of light around a human head or sometimes the entire body, that touches the head or the person’s body directly, and it brings a radiant glow to face or body. Such an image is described in Mesopotamian texts, and it is especially portrayed in Assyrian art images, so it is not a unique image. (It somewhat looks like the shower ring my mother put around my head and forehead, when I was little, to keep shampoo out of my eyes.) This image probably evolved into the halo, which is a smaller circle with a hollow center, and it floats above the head of the angel or saint in Christian art. (The “melammu” shrunk.)

At any rate, the glowing face of Moses has given rise to jokes by seminarians about early radiation poisoning. But the overall message is designed to speak of the holiness of God and the importance of the Law. God, who becomes involved in the human process, shared a little of the divine glory with Moses.

Psalm 99
This short hymn of praise dwells upon royal imagery of God as king. God is enthroned upon the cherubim (v. 1), which are winged flying bulls and that is why he can stand or sit on them. The “footstool” (v. 5) where we worship might be the Temple in Jerusalem. God is the deity of justice and equity.

Historical allusions occur in this short hymn. Moses, Aaron, and Samuel are mentioned as the priests of God. God spoke to them from the “pillar of cloud” (v. 7), which is a term associated with traditions about the exodus, Sinai experience, and the wandering in the wilderness traditions. It may be an ancient term used to respectfully describe the presence of God when you do not wish to directly say that God was actually visible, thus it is a circumlocution.

The hymn concludes with descriptions of God that emphasize the forgiveness and holiness of God. The hymn should be sung or proclaimed to the accompaniment of drums and cymbals in our churches today. (Though that might not go over too well with the parishioners.)

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
This passage is clearly connected to the Exodus text, for it refers to the veil that Moses had to wear. Paul immediately uses the symbol to speak of how Jesus has removed the veil so that we can boldly see God and the glory of God. Upon seeing the glory of God we are transformed. Thus, for Paul, that veil, which originally was meant to protect people from the holiness of God, has been removed, so that we might behold the glory of God and be changed. This is an extremely powerful image that Paul has crafted.

Paul then moves on to say that if we have thus been so wonderfully transformed, we ought to behave. We should not do shameful or cunning things.  That is a good teaching strategy. Say how much God has done for us, then introduce moral guidelines. That is like saying to a small child, “If God has loved you so much, if God cares for you so much, how can you be a bully to your fellow classmates, especially those so much younger than you. Shouldn’t you show the love to others that God has shown to you?” As a chaplain in a Lutheran grade school in a poor neighborhood, I find that statement needs to be made frequently. It’s better than starting out by saying, “What a bad person you are, for being such a bully!” Come to think of it, this might be good advice for adults, as well as small children.

It’s worth saying that Paul’s strategy for teaching moral guidelines to people was not to hit them with guidelines from the Law, but rather to emphasize that as Christians who have experienced God’s love, they should want to do loving things for each other. Appeal to a person’s sense of self-worth, don’t hit them with laws or guidelines. I think this approach should always be emphasized when dealing with children (and larger children, too).

Luke 9:28-36 (37-43)
This great account recalls the Transfiguration of Jesus, as witnessed by Peter, John, and James. This account ends the season of Epiphany and prepares us for the beginning of Lent, because after Jesus comes down off of the Mount of Transfiguration, he will begin the journey down to Jerusalem where he will die. (In New Orleans this Sunday is known as the Sunday before Mardi Gras. We have parades all day long on that Sunday. Oh well!)

We will never know what actually happened up on that mount, but our story has been remembered by the early Christians to draw together several significant events in Jesus’ life. “The appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (v. 29) foreshadows the resurrected body of Jesus. “Now Peter and his companions were weighted down with sleep” (v. 32) foreshadows how the same three guys will sleep in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’” (v. 35). This recalls Jesus’ baptism wherein God said the same thing.  (Okay, only Matthew has God speak in the third person, like this text, and both Mark and Luke have God speak to Jesus directly during his baptism with the words, “You are my son.” But Mark changed the text from the third person to the second person to preserve the theme of a “messianic secret” in the gospel of Mark, and Luke merely followed Mark. Matthew has the original form of the divine address from the oral tradition, as is also recalled by Jewish traditions in the account of Akiba the Rabbi.) Ultimately, the account of the Transfiguration is recalled to pull together Jesus’ baptism, the beginning of his ministry, with his resurrection, the great conclusion of his ministry.

The disciples saw Moses and Elijah. Moses was the source of the traditions in the Pentateuch, so he symbolized the Torah or the Law. Elijah was an early great prophet, he symbolized the Nebiim or the Prophets. When Jews in Jesus’ day, or also Jesus and Paul, spoke of their scriptures, they spoke of the Law and the Prophets. The third part of the Hebrew Bible would not be pulled together by either Jews or Christians until a century after Jesus. Thus, in the account of the Transfiguration, Jesus stands between the great symbols of the Law and the Prophets, or the Jewish scriptures. Jesus is the beginning of a third age after the age of Moses and the age of Elijah. (Elijah’s age was the age after Moses because on the mountain in 1 Kings 19 Elijah heard God in a small voice, symbolic of the prophetic word, rather than in the old, grand theophanies of wind, earthquake, and fire, that had appeared on Sinai for Moses.) Jesus is now the third age.

Furthermore, Jews in the days of Jesus believed that Moses and Elijah were still alive. Elijah, of course, went up into the heavens in the whirlwind (not the fiery chariot, probably God was in that). Though Deut 34:6 says that Moses died and was buried, most Jews were more familiar with the second century BCE story, The Assumption of Moses, so they believed that Moses was alive in heaven along with Elijah (and Enoch, Gen 5:24). (Did Enoch, Elijah, and Moses need a fourth assumption to have enough people to play bridge?) Thus, Moses and Elijah could come down for the Transfiguration and give their approval to Jesus, who would transcend both the Law and the Prophets.

Peter wants to start up a building committee to erect shrines for each of the three great figures. But instead they went down the hill into the valley following Jesus. One can imagine Jesus saying, “Follow me down into the valley, we have work to do down below.” Peter stumbled along behind saying, “Uh, wait a minute . . . I have some blueprints here!” Jesus simply kept moving down the hill toward Jerusalem. For Christians today the Mount of Transfiguration is like a great religious experience, a religious retreat, or maybe the weekly Sunday service. You have to leave it and go down into the valley of life and put into action what you have learned from your religious experience on the mountain top.

It seems that each of the gospel writers may have sensed that with their use of the Transfiguration account. In Mark, Jesus comes down off of the mount and proceeds quickly to Jerusalem where he will die. For Mark the movement to Jerusalem was important throughout the gospel. Mark tells his audience that to follow Jesus means to be ready to suffer, as Jesus did. In Matthew, Jesus comes down off the mount and begins teaching again, for we find the Little Discourses in Matthew 11-13. Matthew’s Jewish Christians receive guidance from Jesus on how to live in their small Christian communities. They will follow Jesus by living the ethic of discipleship. In Luke, Jesus comes down off the mount and begins healing and teaching. In fact, the additional passages connected to this lectionary reading tell of Jesus casting the evil spirit out of a man’s son. For Luke, Jesus shows the later Greek Christian community how to follow Jesus by engaging in a physical ministry to the poor in their own age. Each gospel writer used the Transfiguration narrative as a unifying theme in the gospel, and the journey of Jesus down from the mount additionally gives guidance to modern listeners on how to live out their Christian callings.

We now see why the first two readings about the veil of Moses are connected with this gospel reading. All testify to the presence of God’s glory shining in the world, either on Moses’ face or the entire person of Jesus. But ultimately the glory of God is shown most effectively in the lives that Christians live in this world.

Robert Gnuse (Ph.D., M.A., 1978-80, Vanderbilt; M.Div., S.T.M., 1974-75, Concordia Seminary in Exile) teaches Old Testament at Loyola University in New Orleans, where he is the James C. Carter, S.J./Chase Bank Distinguished Professor of the Humanities. He also serves as part-time pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church  in Marrero, LA (since 1989).