15 February 2015
Last Sunday after Epiphany
Last Epiphany B (RCL)
2 Kings 2:1-12
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
I have often heard (and probably preached) sermons about the transfiguration being in the lectionary on the last Sunday before Lent as a way of giving us a glimpse of what is to come, and steeling us for the journey ahead. The collect for the day certainly points in that direction. I think, instead, the transfiguration stands at the center of Mark’s Gospel as a way of interpreting the two halves of his narrative: the first half shows Jesus as the man of power, announcing God’s kingdom, and the second half shows Jesus as the victim of the plot against his life. The transfiguration is the hinge.
This year, we have the reading of Elijah passing his mantle (literally) to Elisha. God commissioned Elijah on the mountain to anoint Hazael as King of Aram, Jehu as King of Israel and Elisha as his successor. Elisha will have to fulfil the first two clauses of that commission. Hazael and Jehu between them will destroy all but the faithful remnant of Israel. God is starting over. The itinerary the two prophets makes that clear: they trace in reverse the path of the entry of the people into the promised land. Beginning from Gilgal, they go to Bethel to Jericho to the Jordan and across on dry ground to the wilderness. At each stage, members of the guild of prophets try to turn Elisha aside from his grim commission, but he remains undeterred. Having arrived in the wilderness, he sees his mentor taken up into heaven in one of the Lord’s flaming chariots, thereby catching a glimpse of the army of the Lord of Hosts, who will carry out the divine purposes.
The transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain is also in a sense a return to beginnings. When Jesus came up out of the water of baptism, he heard a voice saying, “You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.” God commissioned Jesus as the Suffering Servant of the Isaianic songs. On the mountain, after conversing with Moses and Elijah, the cloud covers Jesus and this time the voice is addressed to Peter, James and John: “This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him.” They will not understand this vision of Jesus’ glory until after his crucifixion and resurrection from the dead. The transfiguration at one moment points both backward to Jesus’ baptism and forward to his resurrection.
The transfiguration also serves as the model or type of the divinization of the human person. Between our baptisms and resurrections, we likewise are transfigured to the eyes that can see. The reading from Second Corinthians tells us how to learn to see the transfiguration of others and ourselves: we see the light of God’s glory in our hearts in the face of God’s Son. What may seem to us a hopeless pattern of life, a life of despair, is in fact the vessel of God’s glory. Having the light of the knowledge of God in the pattern of Jesus’ life, we can see that glory in others with the eyes of our hearts. It is not something we attain by our own effort, but is given us in baptism, itself a form of death and resurrection. We must train the eyes God has given us in baptism to see the glory of God where we least expect it. The man of power and the crucified Christ are the same. God’s glory shines in this life.