A Provocation: Transfiguration Sunday: Matthew 17:1-9

Matthew 17:1-9
17:1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.

17:2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

17:3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.

17:4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

17:5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

17:6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.

17:7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

17:8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

17:9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Jesus’ face shine like the sun?
  • Why do Moses and Elijah appear?
  • Why does Jesus touch Peter, James, and John?

Some Longer Reflections:

Celtic tradition talks about “thin places,” places where heaven, the realm of the extraordinary, comes amazingly close to the earth, where everything is ordinary.

According to tradition, heaven is normally just three feet above us.  Just three feet.  That is SO close, but (unless you are a big-time volleyball player or a basketball player with an amazing vertical leap) always just out of reach.

But in a “thin place,” heaven is closer than that.  Sometimes only two feet away, or even one.  And sometimes it is much closer than that.  Sometimes the barrier between heaven and earth is a diaphanous, gauzy curtain, billowing softly in the breeze.  At such a time and in such a place, you could see the outlines of the truths and realities held only in heaven, you could even touch them, still only through the veil to be sure, but you could touch them.  And they could touch you.

The other week there was an advertisement in the New York Times for a travel adventure to thin places in Britain.  Life-changing experiences were promised because visiting a thin place “jolts you out of all your old ways of seeing things.”

The Transfiguration story looks like a “thin place” story to me.

Jesus and a small group of disciples go up a high mountain, by themselves.  Some thin places are on mountains, and perhaps I can understand why.  The effort required to climb up and away from the ordinary wears away at the screen that separates us from the extraordinary.  The harder the climb, the more the barrier gets worn thin.

It’s not just Celtic tradition that goes up mountains to experience the extraordinary.  Moses goes up Mt. Sinai in Exodus to be given the ethical principles that structure the Universe and the lives of Jewish people.  Elijah also goes up the mountain, called Horeb in 1 Kings, which is also the name given to the mountain of the Commandments in Deuteronomy.  But whether or not it is the same mountain, Elijah also encounters God, just as did Moses, only this time it is the voice of sheer silence that speaks for God.

But that means that when Jesus, along with Peter, James, and John, climb up the high mountain they are also climbing back into deep Jewish memory, profound Jewish tradition.  The combination of memory and tradition also work together to make this the story of a visit to a thin place.

And when they have climbed their way into the mountain and into memory, Jesus is changed in form.  His face glows like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white.

Customary interpretation reads this transformation as a revelation of Jesus’ true nature.  That is a useful reading.  Because Christian theology reads Jesus as divine and human, fully and simultaneously, this revelation of a glowing Jesus opens the audience’s eyes to a deep and important reality that we would not otherwise see.

J.R.R. Tolkien talks about such revelatory scenes in his essay, “On Fairy Stories,” though he is talking there about the way stories about Pegasus open our eyes to the nobility of draft horses.  Such stories, Tolkien says, allow us to recover the ability to see things as we ought to see them, as we were MEANT to see them.  Read from this angle, perhaps this scene in the gospel of Matthew does more than just reveal Jesus’ glory.  Perhaps it also tells us something about how we were MEANT to see all human beings.  John Prine sang a song like that: “You got gold,” he wrote, “gold inside of you” (“You Got Gold,” written by John Prine and Keith Sykes).    Bob Dylan sang a similar idea in his song, “Forever Young:” “May you always know the truth/And see the lights surrounding you”  (“Forever Young,” written by Bob Dylan).

I like such readings of this scene.  And I distrust them.

I get nervous when the worth of a human being is built on them being somehow more than human.

That is one of the problems with the way we talk about the Incarnation.  We begin with God deciding to come to us.  Some very good theologies begin with God coming to us, with God acting freely and first.  But when we are talking about the Incarnation, beginning with God acting, God deciding, God coming is troublesome.  If you begin with God, no matter how much you insist on the dual assertions of full and final divinity and humanity, you always end up with an imagining of God deciding to enter the human world as a human, going down to the costume department and picking out a 44L human body.  It becomes a masquerade, despite your best efforts to resist this.

So I would suggest that this Sunday (and, to be frank, every Sunday, every day) that we start thinking about the Incarnation backwards.

Start with the physical reality of the human world and the human body.  Let that reality swamp the divinity, not the other way around.  The real world is unrelentingly and unrepentantly real.  It runs the way it runs, without stopping to grant our pretty little wishes, without asking what our hopes might be.  I remember learning this when I was a parish pastor.  In the face of ordinary life with its ordinary disasters, I led the prayers of the people.  Life-events, deadly diseases, new jobs and old marriages and middle-aged children: we prayed.  Of course we prayed.  And sometimes the cancer went into remission.  And sometimes the ice still cracked under their feet and they went under in the freezing cold water and drowned.  And sometimes the situation was so complicated that I couldn’t begin to tell you what happened.  Of course we prayed.  How could you not pray?  But any pretense that praying put us in control of the real world was revealed to be exactly that: pretentious.  The real world is unrelentingly and unrepentantly real.  And praying (much better than wishing or even hoping) makes it possible to survive disasters, extraordinary or otherwise.  But still invariably fatal diseases remain invariably fatal.  And we pray while this remains true.  How could we not?

But if we read the Incarnation backwards, we find ourselves in the real world next to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who, I argue, also read his theology the right way: backwards) finding ways to live responsibly, to respond to the concrete reality of the people around us, all of whom live with the same set of real constraints.

And if Jesus is indeed a native of the real world in the same way we are (which is an ancient, utterly orthodox theological claim), then the real world transforms him, too, just the way it transforms each and all of us.  Limitation and witless mortality changes him the way it changes everyone who dreams into the long-distant future, only to discover that life finally comes down to last minutes and final incomplete sentences.  And so God experiences frustratingly dead ends the way we do, and when Jesus (in Matthew and Mark) screams, “My God, why?!,” he means exactly what you mean when you say it.

That makes this a story, not of a thin place, but of a “thick place,” a place that reveals the earthy (and sometimes dirty) reality of regular life.

Oddly enough, it is that earthy limitation that reveals the real gold inside real people.  Perhaps it can’t be revealed any other way.

If so, then this is the real Transfiguration in this scene.  Religious dogma will give us all the “glowing Jesus” that we could ever need.  Explorations of Incarnation that begin with the really real of the real world have the potential to change everything.  Such explorations, I believe, reveal a kind of faithfulness that doesn’t need to drift off to heaven, but lives in the midst of real human obligations.  This is the arena in which real people act out the responsibility, the deputyship, of which Bonhoeffer spoke so eloquently.  In any other arena there would be no risk, and no reality.

In any other arena it would be only a masquerade, and the real world does not need more masquerades.

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