Transfiguration Sunday (10 February 2013)

Contents

Lectionary

  • Exod 34:29-35 & Ps 99
  • 2Cor 3:12-4:2
  • Luke 9:28-36, (37-43)

Introduction: Transfiguration Sunday

In the Revised Common Lectionary the Sunday before Ash Wednesday is designated as Transfiguration Sunday, to provide a fitting conclusion to the Epiphany season. In communities that follow this sequence, the traditional Transfiguration theme on the Second Sunday of Lent is replaced by a more generic lenten set of lections. In Roman Catholic parishes and some other faith communities, the readings for Proper 5C will be used on this day.

Transfiguration: the Underlying Tradition

Crossan identifies the resurrection scene from GPeter as part of a very early document that he calls the Cross Gospel, and which he argues was the original passion narrative:

GPet 35-40 (= ch2 9-10)

/34/ Early, at first light on the sabbath, a crowd came from Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside to see the sealed tomb. /35/ But during the night before the Lord’s day dawned, while the soldiers were on guard, two by two during each watch, a loud noise came from the sky, /36/ and they saw the skies open up and two men come down from there in a burst of light and approach the tomb. /37/ The stone that had been pushed against the entrance began to roll by itself and moved away to one side; then the tomb opened up and both young men went inside.

/38/ Now when these soldiers saw this, they roused the centurion from his sleep, along with the elders. (Remember, they were also there keeping watch.) /39/ While they were explaining what they had seen, again they see three men leaving the tomb, two supporting the third, and a cross was following them. /40/ The heads of the two reached up to the sky, while the head of the third, whom they led by the hand, reached beyond the skies. /41/ And they heard a voice from the skies that said, “Have you preached to those who sleep?” /42/ And an answer was heard from the cross: “Yes!” [Complete Gospels]

In the Synoptic Gospels, the Transfiguration story appears as an event during Jesus’ lifetime with slight variations as set out this horizontal line synopsis.

Finally, there is the reference to the Transfiguration from 2 Peter 1:17–18:

17For he received honor and glory from God the Father
when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying,
“This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.”
18/We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven,
while we were with him on the holy mountain. [Complete Gospels]

Comments

In Mark’s original narrative — from which Luke develops his version of this story — the event which stands before the “six days later” is a comment by Jesus concerning the coming of the Son of Man in the glory of his Father with the holy angels, after which Jesus is represented as saying, “Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God has come with power.” Since there is no reason to assume that the location of the transfiguration is due to anything other than Mark’s editorial decisions, the proximity between the promise and its possible fulfillment in the transfiguration is worth noting. While we tend to think of winged creatures in white gowns when we read “holy angels” the original meaning is closer to “holy messengers” and could easily encompass Moses and Elijah.

The transfiguration itself is difficult to categorise. It seems to have some echoes of the baptism traditions with the heavenly voice affirming the beloved Son. Yet many scholars have wondered if this is not a displaced (and possibly garbled) Easter appearance story. The other alternative, that it may be an authentic religious experience that Jesus underwent and which was witnessed by a handful of his most intimate followers, also needs to be kept in mind.

Bruce Chilton (in Rabbi Jesus) has argued that Jesus was initiated into the Jewish mystical traditions while a disciple of John the Baptist. While that cannot be established beyond question, we should not exclude the possibility that Jesus’ own sense of identity and mission was formed and nourished by profound religious experiences. Certainly others in the early Christian movement had such experiences, in which Jesus himself played a critical role.

The words of the Jewish Jesus scholar, David Flusser, concerning Jesus’ baptism are worth noting here:

We can well imagine the holy excitement of that crowd who had listened to the words of the Baptist. Having confessed their sins and awaiting the gift of the Holy Spirit to cleanse their souls from all the filth of sin, they plunged their bodies into the cleansing water of the river. Can it be that none of them would have had a special pneumatic-ecstatic experience in that hour when the Spirit of God touched them? (Jesus, p. 40)

… many scholars are right in thinking that in the original account, the heavenly voice announced to Jesus, “Behold, My servant, whom I uphold, My chosen, in whom My soul delights; I have put My Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1). This form is probably the original, for the reason that the prophetic word fits the situation. (Jesus, p. 41)

The gift of the Holy Spirit assumed a significance for Jesus that was different than for others who were baptized by John. Heavenly voices were not an uncommon phenomenon among the Jews of those days, and frequently those voices were heard to utter verses from scripture. Endowment with the Holy Spirit, accompanied by an ecstatic experience, was apparently something that happened to others who were baptized in John’s presence in the Jordan. (Jesus, p. 42)

If, however, the heavenly voice intoned the words of Isaiah, Jesus must have understood that he was being set apart as the servant of God, the Chosen One. For him, the gift of the Holy Spirit, which was part of John’s baptism, held another special significance that was to become decisive for his future. None of the designations Son, Servant or Chosen One were exclusively messianic titles–the last two could also denote the special status of the prophetic office. By these titles, Jesus learned that he was now called, chosen, set apart. Nothing we have learned casts any doubt upon the historicity of Jesus’ experience at his baptism in the Jordan. (Jesus, p. 42)

The presence of just the inner circle may be an authentic memory, or a bit of promotion to bolster their standing within the community. Given Mark’s generally critical attitude to the apostolic circle, it is unlikely that he added their names to the tradition. That detail was most likely already in the story as he received it and Luke has simply preserved the information intact.

The location of the transfiguration up a high mountain is what the tradition would lead us to expect. High mountains were sacred places and thus ideal sites for theophanies. According to Jewish tradition, Moses spent 6 weeks (40 days) up the “mountain of God” in Sinai when getting a replacement copy of the Ten Commandments. Elijah retired to a mountain cave for his theophany. While no specific location is named in the gospels, later tradition chose to identify the “mount of the transfiguration” as Mt Hermon, the highest peak in the Galilee.

More recently, Mt tabor has been celebrated as the site for the Transfiguration story. The wild taxi ride up the narrow winding road to the summit is almost enough to induce a vision of God in the contemporary pilgrim, but the clam setting at the top of this mountain invites us into reflection and an experience of holy silence.

The appearance of Moses and Elijah alongside Jesus is a powerful claim to spiritual continuity with the most sacred traditions of ancient Israel. Interestingly, Luke does not follow Mark when he lists Elijah first. This reverses their chronological sequence in the biblical narrative, and flies in the face of later views of the relative significance of Moses and Elijah. However, that may reflect the significance of Elijah as the expected prophet of the End times. In general terms, their presence alongside Jesus speaks to the claim that Jesus was fulfilling the Law and the Prophets.

Jesus Database

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.

About gregoryjenks

Anglican priest and religion scholar. Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Dean-elect, Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Grafton. Formerly Dean at St George's College, Jerusalem. Currently serving as the locum priest at Byron Bay Anglican Parish.
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