By Bob Reid
Texts in view: 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36
How to explain Jesus to the world? This is the question that the authors of the New Testament faced as they wrote their gospels and letters. Often, they turned to the story of Israel, looking for metaphors that would be adequate to the task of setting forth the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. On Transfiguration Sunday the lectionary brought us to two passages of scripture where two of the most powerful metaphors of Israel’s story are applied to Jesus: TheExodus and the giving of the law on Mount Sinai.
In the mysterious transfiguration of Jesus we encounter Jesus in the company of Elijah and Moses, who are mysteriously brought by the Holy Spirit back into this world just for this moment. Luke tells us that “they appeared in glory and were speaking of his <Jesus’> departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem”. The word used for departure is literally, exodus. And with the use of that word we are transported back to God’s emancipation of Israel in the great Exodus from Egypt; and to Moses’ own mountaintop experience when God gives him the Law, Holy Torah, for the well being of the people. The experience of Moses’ in God’s presence during the receiving of the Torah is just about as mysterious as what happens to Jesus during his transfiguration. Moses’ multiple encounters with God around the giving of Torah cause his face to shine so brightly, radiating God’s glory, that he has to cover his face with a veil whenever he talks to the Israelites.
Here is snippet from Exodus 34: “When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him…. but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.”.
Poignantly, the glory that Moses brought with the giving of the Torah fades more that in shines in Israel’s history and the Old Testament ends with this promise: “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.”
Fast forward to Jesus’ transfiguration. Elijah has already come figuratively in John the Baptist (Mark 9:13) but he comes literally at Jesus’ transfiguration. Together with Moses he speaks of the New Exodus, Jesus’ death on the cross, his “departure” (Luke 9:31). The torch has been passed and the events in Jerusalem will be the fulfillment of God’s promise to bring a lasting peace and reconciliation: there will be no curse because Jesus will have bear the curse on the cross. The glory of the cross will be a lasting glory and available to everyone. No veils anymore. St. Paul was not present at the Transfiguration of Jesus and yet the glory of Jesus that burned hot in the form of love for Paul knocked him off his horse and transformed his life (Acts 9).
Previously bent on destroying the church, Paul became its most fervent missionary. And about two decades later he will write the following words to the church at Corinth: “Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And 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; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
Caleb wrapped up his homily by urging us to receive the truth that now, because of Jesus, we can each carry around the glory of Jesus on our faces! - as we embody the same self-giving love that enacted Jesus’ “exodus” in Jerusalem. Our faces carry Jesus’ glory as we love and serve others in his name; our faces shine forth his glory when we receive God’s forgiveness and depend on God’s grace to enable us to live in conformity with what is good for us, good for others, and pleasing to God. Jesus’ glory is on our face when we take communion, when we love our children, and when we make a plate of food for those in need. Jesus’ glory is everywhere now! May we become better and better at drawing attention to it!
Caleb urged us to see the mystery in the passages in Luke and Corinthians as wonderful examples of Jesus’ followers straining to find metaphors that do justice to the wonder of Jesus and all that they had experienced with him and from him. Pregnant and palpable in Caleb’s words were the exhortation to each of us to strain until we find words and symbols that explain Jesus to those with whom we have to do. May God give us the grace to do just that.