Sister Gloria chose the transfiguration [Luke 9:28b-36] for our reading this week. I was torn between two phrases: “Listen to him” was my first impulse, but later I was drawn to “his face changed in appearance.” When the lady next to me took, “Listen to him,” my contrarian nature took hold.
The thing that I wanted to explore with those gathered was what exactly the phrase meant. Was it that Jesus’ face expressed an unfamiliar emotion, or did he really look like a different person? When I began to speak, however, the power of the contemplative unity overwhelmed me again. I was confident that it was the latter.
Our avatars come down and occupy bodies, bodies that become corrupted by their struggle to bring us to grace. In offering “his face changed in appearance,” I believe that the gospel conveys the enormous power of this event. Jesus appeared in his perfected form. The transformation was accompanied by Moses and Elijah in their glory. The text relates that they “spoke of [Jesus’] exodus…in Jerusalem.”
Not quite. The reason they appeared in glory was because Jesus had progressed in his exploration of his age to the point that he was ready to work with Moses and Elijah to construct that future. This was not idle chatter, but interaction between those involved in doing a powerful work on human nature.
The Old Testament is the record of the struggle by God to prepare every person of faith to enter into direct relation with the power of unconditional love. The root of the process was the Law, which in application required rationality and discipline, but we also have the assignment of the Levites as philosophers and teachers, something truly unusual in the era. Moses guided this social transformation, and understood intimately the intention of every line in the law.
The problem was that advancing the into unconditional love was difficult so long as the people were preoccupied with migration. So the Israelites were given Canaan, but the possession of the land brought with it conflict. Awed by the military power of their enemies, and not trusting in God’s intervention to ensure that they would eventually escape domination, the people demanded a king. It wasn’t long before the kings began to compete with the priests for authority. It was Elijah that struggled with greatest integrity against this corruption, his final act of power being to annihilate the king’s horsemen that arrived to force him to descend the mountain for an audience.
So the three men looked into Jesus’ future, and when a confrontation arose, Moses would offer counsel that stymied the priests, and Elijah counsel to stymie the kings. Not confront, not intimidate, not destroy, but stymie. Those other paths had been tried, and found impotent.
So I see in this event a moment of exceptional power, unparalleled until the moment of his resurrection. Yes, even greater than the crucifixion: it is not recorded, as it is here, that “his face changed in appearance.” In that final submission to human brutality, Jesus was still trapped in the throes of his human manifestation.
Against this glory, we have the contrast of the three witnesses: Peter, John and James. Why them? Was it that among the disciples only they were ready to experience the grace of this moment, grace that once might have brought the warning “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” [Exodus 33:20]
Somehow that seems unlikely. The importunity of Peter is recorded in this very passage, and caused Jesus on one occasion to rebuke him with “Get behind me, Satan!” [Matt. 16:23] And of John and James, we know them as the “Sons of Thunder.” [Mark 3:17] No, I would hazard that these three were apt to act on their own counsel, requiring Jesus again and again to turn from his way to clean up after them.
The Greeks were not big on punctuation, and so most adopt a tone of gentle reverence when speaking in God’s place. But in this case, I can’t help but hear the cloud with the intonation:
This is my chosen son. Listen to him!