Mass readings for the 2nd Sunday of Lent:
Genesis 15.5-12, 17-18 Psalm 27.1, 1-9, 13-14 Phillipians 3.17-4.1 Luke 9.28-36
The Transfiguration is truly a singular revelation of Jesus’ identity. It comes in advance of his Passion, Resurrection and Ascension. So, it does not call us to reflect upon Christ’s sacrifice, or the nature of the resurrection either for Jesus or for us.
This scene focuses on his identity as the Son of God, the Word of God. We are called to reflect upon what that Word is as a message to us from out of the eternal mystery of God; what it means to be a child of God by adoption by considering the character of the only begotten Son. It shows us who and what will be sacrificed, and perhaps, deepen our appreciation of that sacrifice, and give us confidence in our own lives in the divine power that aids us in our struggles.
We look at this scene like a tableau – something like those living stations of the cross that some may have experienced where people stage the scene, freeze the action so that we can contemplate it. The text I proclaimed makes a picture in our heads, and some of us may know some of the religious painting that has tried to capture this scene.
When we look at it in works of art, or contemplate that more personal vision conjured in our imaginations, we are inclined to note what is in the picture. But here I’ll draw on more a post-modern technique of interpretation, and also ask, “what isn’t in this picture?”
Of course, there are any number of things that “aren’t there” but I am referring to what is conspicuously absent from this scene.
We see Jesus in conversation with Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets.
Now think about how Jesus is discussed in Luke’s gospel initially; think about how he is introduced in Matthew’s gospel. There is a tremendous concern with his lineage, who he is in terms of the nation of Israel, as a human being born into a society, a nation, a family. He is of the House of David. This is of great importance in the opening movements of the gospels.
We also remember stories of people calling out to him, “Son of David.” This clearly is an important aspect of who he is, it’s how people perceive him in the context of Israel’s history.
Yet when it comes time for the disciples, the future Church, to see Jesus in a way that gives them insight into the fullness of his identity, this part of him, the lineage, the descendance from Israelite kings, is absent.
We have Moses and Elijah, but not David, nor Solomon.
It is because kingship belongs to this world. Remember that God had proposed himself as the ruler of Israel, but the tribes demanded a human king; and the prophet Samuel, saddened by this demand, nonetheless followed God’s instructions and gave the people what they wanted.
Jesus in taking flesh, becoming incarnate among us, also takes on this concept of kingship, then the most common form of political organization. It’s part of his humanity, not his divinity.
Politics is part of our fallen existence. The ancient philosopher Aristotle has said as much: human beings are political animals. We live in community, and we have to work out how to do that. And from what we know, that has usually meant a lot of bullying, exploitation and repression; only occasionally do we find human societies that express genuine justice and freedom.
What we have enjoyed in the last hundred years or so, this relatively free, open and prosperous society, is extremely exceptional in terms of human history. What ancient Israel had in its time under the Davidic kings was extremely exceptional. Ancient kings often claimed divinity. Egypt’s pharaohs were thought of as gods by their people; other kings and rulers proposed that they were children of the nation’s god – and to mean that quite literally. Israel’s kings were to be under no illusions in that regard, nor were the people to be either: kings are one of us; exceptional for having been chosen to rule and so burdened with a tremendous responsibility and accountability, but still just human.
The House of David belongs to this world. It is isn’t just any household, but a special one designated by God to provide leadership to God’s people and to set an example in piety and righteousness. To its shame, it failed in this task.
So, in a sense, as much as Jesus came to redeem humanity, so too did he come to redeem kingship, to redeem human politics, and set them aright on a good foundation.
Now is that foundation the law? Are we then to say God is then characterized by the Law of Moses? We know Jesus was very critical of that idea if it meant God is all about rules and regulations.
Is the foundation to be the zeal of the prophets? Is it their spirit that is the guiding principle? Well, no. Jesus did speak of the importance of the law; that there was a law, but its spirit was what we need. Jesus was about the spirit of the law; the spirit of the law being life, but the letter being death. What is meant by that?
This is why we have the three of them in conversation, because the basis for our lives, as communities and individuals, as leaders and followers, is that conversation.
Part of the problem for us is the Hebrew language. Torah, the law, doesn’t just mean law simply in the sense of rules and regulations. It actually has the profound sense of being “instruction.” That is, the Torah teaches.
So, when we think of the law of Moses as instruction, as teaching, we should then ask, what is it trying to teach? Well, it’s trying to instruct people in holiness; in love of God and neighbour; in understanding the obligations we have to God, and to our families and communities. It’s trying to teach us about our own individual dignity that is the basis for our treating other individuals with dignity.
The prophets who come throughout ancient Israel’s relatively brief history, come with this message, repeating it over and over again. The key to life for both nation and individual is placing God at the centre of life, abiding in love and truth, and then building out from that family and community. It’s not about how many sheep you need to sacrifice; there’s no appeasing God after you’ve sinned by killing a bull and burning it whole on the altar in Jerusalem. God rather wants you to repent and return to relationship with him in charity and peace.
That is not a message that comes to Israel from its kings. That is not a message that will come to us through politics. Rather, it is for kings, for politicians, for communities and individuals to receive the Word of God, be instructed by it, and then work out how to live out what has been learned in the way of love and truth. Politics does not produce truth and love; it is mere process and it will use whatever it is given in terms of a cultural or spiritual substance. Base one’s politics on power, as is the case with most human societies through most of human existence, and you see bloody struggle, suffering, injustice, and so on. You see the great mass of people neglected in their problems, and yet enlisted in the service of those who contend for power. They become fodder for war, and enjoy few of the blessings of peace.
We look to power, earthly power to solve our problems, shape our communities, mould people as we would want them according to our designs—that speaks of a lack of trust in God’s way, in his instruction in holiness, which is Christ’s way to truth and life.
Peter famously, upon witnessing this holy convention of Christ, Moses and Elijah, this vivid expression of the Word of God as law, instruction in holiness and prophetic call to sanctity, and wants to set up shop right there atop Mt. Tabor. Now in a sense that isn’t quite as ridiculous as it seems. There is in ancient Judaism the idea of creating a holy space, a sacred place to which all the nations of the world would come in pilgrimage to receive instruction. Now, the assumption by most was that this would be the Temple in Jerusalem, but others thought to look to make that centre elsewhere, especially as they regarded the Temple as corrupted by the world. And Mt. Tabor is rather special, a great dome of rock that rises out of a large plain in what is today modern Israel, and it stands isolated from any other comparable geographic feature. So, it is a mountain apart from other mountains. And if we return to that idea of law as instruction and not rules; it’s interesting that Mt. Tabor, the mountain of the Transfiguration, is the likely location of Jesus’ famous sermon on the mount in which he proclaimed the Beatitudes. And the Beatitudes distil for us the law by which are to live: guided by love, compassion, a sense of justice and hunger for righteousness; all things that bring us to sanctity, bring us to abide in God.
But Jesus does not want us on the mountaintop; that’s not where the gospel is to be kept, high and remote, but it’s something to be brought down to the plain, to be preached there as he did; brought down to confront earthly power in Jerusalem; and because it is instruction in life, it will overcome death, even death on a cross. Amen.