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Feast of the Transfiguration

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

Feast of the Transfiguration: Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99

2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36

The Rev. Cameron Partridge

August 6, 2023

Good Morning, St. Aidan’s.

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration. It is one of three Feasts of Jesus Christ that, when they happen to fall on a Sunday, take precedence over the readings that would otherwise be assigned that day (the other two are the Holy Name on January 1 and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple on February 2).[1] The Feast has been observed in the Eastern Christian tradition from very early on—well before 1000 C.E., and reflects the significance of the Transfiguration in the theologies of early Greek writing theologians such as the Cappadocians (Gregory of Nyssa and his brother Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory Nazianzus) and Maximus the Confessor. This Feast began to be observed broadly in the churches of the West much later – as of the fifteenth century.[2] We hear a version of this story on Sunday morning at least once a year, as you may recall, because it is always assigned as the last Sunday after the Epiphany. But in years such as this one, when August 6th falls on a Sunday, we get to hear it twice. Given that the Church calendar invites us to hear particular stories at specific times of the year, I find myself thinking about the difference it makes to hear this story now in comparison with when we more often hear it. What does the story invite us to consider in this moment, at this particular moment in time?

Attending to the distinct calendar location, I’m struck immediately by where the Transfiguration story falls among the flow of stories we’ve been invited to hear. On Transfiguration Sunday, hearing this story at the conclusion of the Epiphany season, it emerges as a bookend to the story of Jesus’ baptism. In both, the divine voice declares Jesus “my Son.” The Mark and Matthew versions add “my Beloved” in direct parallel with the language at Jesus’ baptism, while our Luke version uniquely declares, “my Chosen.”[3] But the placement of this story at the conclusion of the Epiphany season also positions it as a pivot toward Lent. There is a sense of descent from the mount of glory into the desert, toward the Temptation stories (which come on the first Sunday of Lent) and the wilderness journey. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the story is heard on the Second Sunday of Lent, locating it more clearly in that wilderness domain. This telling of the story at the edge or beginning of Lent draws upon the story’s location in the gospel accounts, because it closely follows one of the “Passion predictions,” as they are called—the moments where Jesus tells the disciples that he would be killed and then rise. The proximity of this story to Lent has a way of leaning into the disciples’ resistance and grief, in a way preparing them for it. At the Feast of the Transfiguration, however, the larger narrative arc in which we are located, the surrounding stories in which we have been swimming, have a very different directionality. We’ve been hearing various parables—recently that of the Sower (Mt 13:1-9, 18-23) and the Weeds and the Wheat (Mt 13:24-30, 36-43). And the week before that, the beautiful invitation, “Come unto me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:30). Last Sunday, we also stepped outside the regular lectionary flow as we commemorated the anniversary of the Philadelphia Eleven ordinations. Amid this field of stories, the Transfiguration rises up, a kind of time out of time. Amid this field, what might this story is inviting us to hear and to see?

Here is what I notice. First of all, I hear a call to prayer. Uniquely in the Luke version of the Transfiguration, which is always the account assigned for the Feast, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up onto a mountain specifically to pray. This is emphasis on prayer comes as no surprise, as Luke is especially attentive to Jesus’ prayer in the midst of his life and ministry. It is also while Jesus is praying just after his baptism that the Spirit descends upon him and the voice declares him beloved (Lk 3:21-22). In our story it is during his prayer that his face changes and his clothes turn dazzling white. He is profoundly fueled by prayer. Prayer rises up in this account, like a practice of oasis and transformation. Within this prayerful sphere, the Transfiguration effect seems to extend: uniquely in Luke’s account, the ancient forebears Moses and Elijah not only accompany him but specifically “appear in glory” alongside him (Lk 9:31). The three figures now glow gloriously before the three disciples who, we learn, are weighed down by sleep. But because they stayed awake, we hear, they saw. Look what they would have missed had they succumbed to fatigue! Here the quality of awareness, of being awake to the world, is linked to prayer. The line from Second Peter amplifies this sentiment and extends it to us: “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2 Peter 1:19). Prayer as expectant, attentive presence stands out to me as a distinctive fruit of receiving this story at this particular time. Attend, listen, watch, be present, be expectant.

And this sense of expectancy leads to a further dimension: open yourself to God’s transfiguring presence in all its mystery. In Luke’s version, Peter’s reaction to the sight of the glowing figures is linked as well to the conversation that he and the others hear about the “departure” – the exodus, to translate the Greek more literally that Jesus was “about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Lk 9:31). Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem was being rendered as a version of the Exodus, a pathway through death into new life.[4] Peter cannot take in the full import of what Jesus, Moses and Elijah are discussing—he cannot fathom it. And so he asks them to stay in this holy place with them. This comment about the three booths can have a certain clinging quality to it— as if to say, don’t go! Don’t take this tortuous path that I cannot wrap my mind around! And I sympathize. I too want to cling. Those of you particularly attentive to the processes of grief surely recognize this. I too do not want to let go. And that is only natural. What I also notice, hearing this story in this moment, in this time out of time, is that Peter has recognized it as such. He has noted well and truly that this place, this presence, this encounter, is holy. He wants to mark it as such—is in fact doing so. He is seeking receiving its gift. And that is in fact very good. Truly to receive the gift of the transfigured Christ — both in its own right and in the lives of those who have shown Christ to us – is to stand still in God’s presence on the holy mountain. As we stand there with Peter, James and John, that presence then overshadows like the mystery of our soothing old friend Karl the Fog. Terrified though we may feel, we enter that cloud and hear the divine voice for ourselves: This is my son, my chosen; listen to him (Lk 9:35). Listen. Take in. Be prayerfully present. It is indeed good that we are here.

The directionality of the story works differently when you hear it in this time and place. We are not heading into Lent, we are awash in this season of the Spirit. We have been making our way through seasons of challenge – I think of the Lenten sounding “Covidtide” we have lived through, as well as more recent losses we have experienced in our community. I think of the news with its continuing delivery of tumult, loss, war, and chaos. To hear this story in this context invites us not to escape but to step out and up from these very real challenges and receive a space of respite. On this holy mountain the call comes to us: listen, see, be present. Receive the gift of the metamorphosis, the most frequently used Greek term for the Transfiguration. The Metamorphosis proclaims the Paschal Mystery in a space out of space and a time out of time: Christ has lived, has proclaimed the kingdom, has ministered, has healed, has died; Christ is risen, unable to be contained by death, the first fruit of resurrection life offered to us and to all creation; Christ will come again. Receive the mystery of this gift and know that we too are metamorphic: layered with experience, loss, resilience, beauty, strength, purpose. Let us receive God’s gift to be changed by it. Changed for the promise of newness of life that emerges from challenge. Changed to proclaim the good news in and with our lives. In this space of respite, let us receive, be present, pray, and let us allow that gift to pervade our steps as we make our way out from this mountain. Let us embody good news. Amen.

[1] The Calendar of the Church Year, The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing 1979), 16. [2] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1957, 1997), 1636-1637. [3] Mt 17:5; Mk 9:7 [4] Fred Craddock makes this suggestion in “Luke,” The HarperCollins Bible Commentary (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988, 2000), 941, 954.

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