Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Transfiguration, a Central Paradigm

Scripture for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany includes Exodus 34:29-35; II Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-43a

The season of Epiphany always ends with our hearing the story of the mountaintop transfiguration of Jesus. This has its own symmetry, that Epiphany opens with the light of a brilliant star, and reaches completion in the illumination of Jesus our star. God’s radiant energy streams from heaven to earth and takes up residence in the heart and mind of Jesus. Then, watch out: its next stop, this enlightenment from God, is to ignite you and me and make us light-bearers.

No, it’s not enough that Jesus should shine alone on Mount Tabor like a Christmas tree. We’re next. That’s what Peter, James, and John sensed when they developed a containment plan: let’s take this under advisement, they say, put it under wraps until we can figure out what’s to be done with this energy, this disturbance, this power that we don’t know how to harness and appears to want to harness us.

To their credit, the three disciples correctly read the iconography of this moment: they interpret the vision of Moses and Elijah to mean that the light emanating from Jesus is Godly light, intimately related to the law and the prophets. Hasn’t Jesus taught them that the whole of the law and the message of the prophets hang on, depend upon, loving God wholeheartedly and loving their neighbors as themselves? Love is the brilliant piercing light hanging like a pendant on his breast. They get it. They get that what’s happening here is a profound getting and giving, transmission, transition, transfiguration. All that light is evidence of all this movement, this crossing-over of Spirit and truth. It’s not just about him: it’s so much about us.

St. Paul agrees. We have been freed, says Paul, and the bright torch of freedom lets us see clearly in a darkened world, if we will pull off the wraps from our faith, dig out from our bunkers of fear and let hope and love have their way with us. Then, “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”

Wow! Transfiguration isn’t a quirky moment in the life of Jesus: it’s a central paradigm for describing the relationship of God’s Spirit and our human spirit. The word “indwelling” is often used to describe this relationship, but how sedentary that sounds, in the light of these scripture readings! Far better to think “igniting” , “incendiary”, “energizing”.

And “strengthening”, according to our collect today: “…that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.” Wow! There is church. Embers on the hearth, not left to burn out where they fall, but swept in together to where they’ll reignite one another, burn bright again, and pass their flame to the new wood.

In the language of our collect we learn why Transfiguration enters the narrative of our Lord’s life. He is being strengthened to bear his cross. He has set his face to Jerusalem, knowing that he must bring his yearning for justice into the judgment hall of the imperial governor, and his clear-eyed truth into the sanctuary of the established church. Moses and Elijah are all over him with encouragement. “We have your back”, they promise; though hearing a pledge like that, from beyond the grave, doesn’t provide secure answers (like, how do I do this?) as much as it promises that grace will show the way, and the way is right because it is that radiant pulsing way of love.

So I wonder what bearings of our own crosses may be asked of us? What listenings to God will cause our faces to shine, prompt us to renounce shameful things, make us insist that our leaders refuse to practice cunning, inspire us to openly state the truth, and convey the best that our consciences have to offer?

Transforming our culture of violence, in particular violence involving guns, is the crucial need now urgent enough that we dare not wait for it to become more urgent. Pressing for reform in our national delivery of mental health care also demands to be carried on our minds and hearts into political action.

In one of his great speeches, Martin Luther King said that the people of this nation may prefer gradual change, but that the campaign for civil rights for all Americans required recognizing what he called “the fierce urgency of now.”

The fierce urgency of now is upon us, squarely and sure, on the subject of controlling gun violence in this country.

Today’s collect tells us that when faith frees and clears our sight to recognize where and how we see God’s love radiant in Jesus, we will be made strong to press our case and bear our cross. According to the collect, bearing the cross plays a big part in transforming us from what passes as glory to what really constitutes glory. We might even expect this activism to help change us, transfigure us, into the likeness of Jesus. There is church, drawing together bright embers of hope and conviction to burn bright enough to help cauterize the open wounds of a nation.