The Last Sunday after the Epiphany: Transfiguration Sunday (Year A), 23 February 2020

February 23, 2020 | by Paul S. Nancarrow

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Exodus 24:12-18 Psalm 2 or Psalm 99 2 Peter 1:16-21 Matthew 17:1-9

The season after the Epiphany comes to a close, and turns toward Lent, with a final burst of light. The liturgical cycle that began with the light of the star guiding the magi to Jesus now ends with the light of Jesus revealed in Transfiguration. All the readings are chosen to reflect this Gospel story. They are especially tied together by the running image of the voice from the cloud

That image is prominent in Exodus 24:12-18. The people of Israel have arrived at Mt Sinai after escaping Egypt, and God summons Moses “Come up to me on the mountain.” On the top of the mountain God will deliver to Moses “the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction,” summarizing the words God has been speaking to Moses since chapter 19. This encounter with God and God’s teaching is therefore not the first time Moses has come into God’s presence, but it will ratify those earlier encounters, as it were, by leaving with Moses an embodiment, a tangible record of God’s commandments, written directly by God. That makes this encounter all the more significant. Moses sets out with assistants, but the final ascent to the mountaintop he makes alone. There the “cloud” and the “glory” of God settle, and for six days radiate God’s presence; on the seventh day the voice of God calls from the cloud for Moses to enter. Moses enters the fiery cloud and remains in God’s presence for forty days and forty nights. 

This passage is just one small part of a much larger theophany story, which itself appears to be a composite of several threads of tradition woven into a single text (between chapters 19 and 24, for instance, Moses seems to go up to the Lord more often than he comes back down to the people, which could well indicate separate traditions later edited together). In process terms, the entire Sinai theophany can be taken as a reflection on how God gives faithful people initial aims for the occasions of their lives, aims that can be fulfilled as acts for justice and peace and right-relationships of shared well-being. The transcendence and final unknowability of God, symbolized throughout the Sinai event as clouds and fire and thick darkness, is not the only manifestation of God, but God also comes forth as the voice from the cloud, intelligibility out of mystery, giving commandments and instruction that reveal God’s character and allow people to share in that same character through their instructed actions. These particular verses, chosen to go with the particular Gospel and theme of the day, set the stage for going up the mountain to see the light and hear the voice of God, as Peter and James and John will do with Jesus. 

Psalm 2 is a royal psalm, and probably an enthronement song celebrating the accession of a new king. The dominant theme of God’s anointed king crushing opposition with “an iron rod” and creating an imperial theocracy with “the nations for your inheritance and the ends of the earth for your possession” seems out of character with the ministry of Jesus; and is in any case repugnant to our sense today of the inclusivity of God and the infinite variety of persons and personal expressions drawn into God’s kindom. The fact that too many of our political leaders today seem bent on crushing each other with iron rods, rather than working together for any kind of common good, should warn us away from too facile a reading of this psalm. Instead, the value of the psalm on this day is its line “the decree of the Lord: ‘You are my Son; this day have I begotten you'” and its echo of the voice from the cloud declaring Jesus the Beloved Son in the Gospel. 

The alternative, Psalm 99, is also replete with enthronement imagery, and its attendant problems. Important on this day is the verse “He spoke to them out of the pillar of cloud; they kept his testimonies and the decree that he gave them,” tying together the experiences of Moses and of Peter on their respective holy mountains. 

It is generally accepted that the Second Letter of Peter was not actually written by the fisherman, but was pseudepigraphically attributed to him sometime at the end of the first or beginning of the second century CE. So the account of the Transfiguration in 2 Peter 1:16-21 cannot be taken as an “eyewitness” report any more than the account in Matthew. It is mentioned here to contrast spiritual teaching derived from “cleverly devised myths” with the apostolic tradition based on “the prophetic message” and what “we ourselves heard” in the voices of Jesus and “the Majestic Glory” of the cloud on the mountain. The overall point of 2 Peter is to warn against false teachers and to reinforce the importance in the community of those who carry the apostolic tradition. The supposed author’s supposed personal experience of hearing the voice of God convey “honor and glory” to Jesus is meant to be taken as evidence for the superiority of the apostolic over the “cleverly devised” false teachings. 

Interestingly, the account here has little to say about the light that shone from Jesus, a key feature of the Gospel story, but focuses instead on the voice from the cloud. What matters to the author is the direct divine witness to the truth revealed in Jesus the Beloved Son. Jesus’ visual transformation is less important than his being the recipient of honor and glory from God and not from “myths.” 

The symbolism of light returns, however, in reference to the readers of the epistle. “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place,” readers are encouraged, so that “the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” For 2 Peter, the real culmination of the Transfiguration event happens in believers, when the light of the Morning Star (sometimes used as an epithet for Jesus in his apocalyptic role; see, eg, Revelation 22:16), shines in the believers’ own hearts. The glory that was conveyed to Jesus on the holy mountain is to be conveyed to believers also, when they obey the voice of God as it is presented in the apostolic witness. Then their grasp of the”prophecy of scripture” will no longer be a matter of their “own interpretation” and “human will,” but will be the movement “of the Holy Spirit” speaking in them “from God.” 

Reading this passage in process terms, we might not be comfortable with such a rigid divide between human interpretation and divine inspiration. In process thought God always works with the world as it is; the divine work of giving aims and receiving satisfactions always works with creaturely work of concrescence and becoming, so that God and creatures co-create the serial societies of occasions that constitute real enduring things in the world. The movement of the Holy Spirit in “prophecy” — not only predicting the future but bringing God’s will to bear in real occasions in the real world — must work along with works of “human will” in order to create right-relationships and enduring patterns of justice and peace. We can take 2 Peter’s distinction between human interpretation and divine inspiration not as a contradiction but as a contrast: in considering how our actions, or the actions of our communities, embody the ideals of God, it is important to look not only at our own desires or intentions, but at the wider scope of apostolic tradition and overlapping patterns of right-relationships in wider societies and societies-of-societies. The light of God that shines in our hearts is not meant for our possession alone, but is a guide to deeper and wider patterns of receiving and offering in many relationships. 

All these themes come to a focus in the Transfiguration story in Matthew 17:1-9. Six days after Peter declared Jesus to be the Messiah, Jesus takes Peter and James and John to the mountaintop. Here Jesus becomes the central figure of a theophany including light, cloud, and a voice from the cloud — all elements familiar from the theophany to Moses on Sinai. Elements new to this Jesus-centered theophany are the appearance of Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus, and Peter’s offer to build “dwellings” for the radiant figures on the site of the revelation. 

While Matthew often casts Jesus as the “new Moses” in his Gospel — as in the Sermon on the Mount, for instance — I think a good case can be made that Peter plays the role of Moses in relation to this theophany. Like Moses, it is Peter (with James and John) who is summoned to the mountain. Peter is the one who speaks to the theophany, as Moses did on Sinai. And in the end it is Peter (with James and John in tow) who is told when and when not to share the story of the theophany with the faithful community, as Moses was sent to report to Israel all that God had commanded. Especially with the 2 Peter passage setting it up, it is not inappropriate to read this Transfiguration story with Peter as the central character. Then the story is less about something remarkable that happened to Jesus and Jesus alone, and more about disciples’ faithful response to the presence of God revealed in Jesus. 

Matthew’s treatment of Peter’s suggestion to build “dwellings” is particularly interesting in this regard. Mark and Luke both emphasize that Peter suggests building shelters without really knowing what he is saying, just blurting something out because he is terrified. But Matthew makes a point of saying that the three disciples are not “overcome by fear” until after the voice from the cloud speaks. When Peter first suggests making shrines, Matthew gives us no indication that Peter’s judgment or intelligence is impaired. 

Instead, we can understand Peter’s reaction as a traditional and even liturgical response to a holy moment. The word for “dwelling” that Matthew uses in the text literally means “tent”; a small tent or “tabernacle” was the chief feature of the Jewish festival of Sukkot, which was held to commemorate the Israelites’ time of wilderness wandering after receiving the law on Sinai. It is not necessary to try to draw some direct connection between the festival of Sukkot and the date of the Transfiguration (a connection that would be hard to defend in any case) to see a reflection of the time the people dwelt in tents with God, when the cloud of God’s glory would descend on the tent of meeting so that Moses could speak with God, in Peter’s offer to make tents so that Jesus and Moses and Elijah could continue to share God’s light with the disciples. I am also tempted to see an echo, remoter perhaps but not impossible, between Peter’s offer to build dwellings and the way Abraham built altars throughout the land to commemorate places where God spoke with him. Far from being a fearful blunder, in Matthew’s treatment Peter’s offer to make tabernacles is a thoroughly appropriate liturgical suggestion, an offer to create a place of practice where the light of God can be received and the devotion of the faithful can be offered. Awed Peter may be; but his awe issues not in terror but in worship. 

Peter’s liturgy is burst open, reoriented to a wider horizon, when the “bright cloud” overshadows them and he hears the voice from the cloud. The voice from the cloud on Sinai told Moses to receive stone tablets with law and commandments. The voice from this cloud tells the disciples that Jesus “is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Instead of stones, the disciples here receive God’s instruction in the living Jesus, whose words they should listen to as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17). Instead of a commemorative liturgy focused on “dwellings,” Peter and the others are summoned to a forward-looking liturgy of listening to Jesus and re-enacting his actions after him. With his traditional response to the holy overcome by this new voice, Peter and the others “fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.” But Jesus, to whom they have just been told to listen, speaks to them with words that are both simple and all-embracing, both for this moment and for all their moments yet to come: “Get up and do not be afraid.” Jesus, who speaks to them now as Moses and Elijah and more, says “Rise” and “Do not fear.” Their new life-liturgy will be to receive from Jesus this energy of divine love, like a lamp shining in a dark place, and to offer their own actions in the world as enactments of that love. They will yet be afraid many times in the gospel; they will not understand the extent of this new worship until “the Son of Man has been raised from the dead”; but their encounter with God on the mountaintop, their hearing the voice from the cloud, and their recognition of that voice speaking to them in Jesus, has redirected the course of their lives as much as Moses’ direction was set on Sinai. 

And where in our faith and our life-liturgy do we need to hear Jesus say to us “Get up and do not be afraid”? In what ways do our inherited forms of response to the holy need to be burst open and redirected to the living person of Jesus? How can we learn to listen more deeply to Jesus, to the aims and ideals of God that he mediates to us, so that we can receive those aims and offer our enactments, in a practice of receiving and offering that serves as our lived liturgy of right-relationships of shared well-being with God and others? In the lectionary year this Sunday and its Transfiguration story stand at the boundary between Epiphany and Lent, between the season of the light of God and the season of self-denial and special devotion walking with Jesus his way to the cross. This celebration of light can help keep us focused on God’s aims for justice, peace, and joy even as we turn to Lent’s ashes.

The Rev. Dr. Paul Nancarrow is an Episcopal priest retired from full-time parish ministry. His theological work has focused on process-relational interpretations of liturgy, and especially on the co-acting of divine action and human action in sacramental work and worship. He has taught Theology for deacons’ ordination training in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia. He can often be found contemplating the Adventure of the Universe as One from the saddle of his bicycle on back roads and rail-trails in the Upper Midwest.