26 February 2017
Last Sunday after Epiphany
Last Epiphany A (RCL)
2 Peter 1:16-21
The Transfiguration (as related in the Synoptic Gospels) is a particularly fraught episode. It carries a great deal of interpretive weight. In Mark’s Gospel, it has a bit of a supersessionist feel to it — the fact that after the cloud departs, Moses and Elijah are no longer present, given the rest of Mark’s Gospel, seems to imply that the law and prophets have been replaced by Jesus. Add to that Peter’s misunderstanding of the event, and Mark seems to be saying that his community (and not the original disciples) has correctly understood the meaning of the Jesus event.
Matthew softens the blow against Peter, by leaving out the phrase about him not knowing what he was saying when he offered to build three booths (or tabernacles). In Mark, the voice from the cloud says, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Mark alludes to Psalm 2, a coronation psalm. Jesus, as Messiah, replaces Moses and the prophets. Matthew changes Mark to have the voice say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” Matthew alludes both to Psalm 2 and to the first (and by extension all) Servant Song in Isaiah. For Matthew, Jesus, by his suffering fulfills the vocation of Israel to be a blessing to the world, and by extension, the Christian community also shares in that vocation.
Moses and Elijah, besides representing emerging canon of scripture (Moses and the prophets) also each had their own encounter with God on the mountaintop. We read an account of Moses’ encounter in the Exodus passage for this Sunday. The holiness and glory of God rubs off on Moses, too. Later, we are told that his face glowed when he came down, and he veiled it after each encounter with God so the people would not be frightened. On the mountain top, Moses received the law. Elijah, in his encounter (with a voice), received a terrible vocation, to anoint Elisha his successor, Jehu as King of Israel, and Hazael as King of Syria. Between the three of them, they would kill all but 7000 of Israel, all those knees that had not bowed to Ba’al. By referencing the Suffering Servant motif in Jesus’ transfiguration and setting it as a prelude to all that will happen in Jerusalem (in Luke’s Gospel, Moses and Elijah speak to Jesus about his exodus), I believe Matthew is subverting the vengeance of God. God so desires union with humanity and the unity of human beings with one another, that God will accept into the divine self the retribution that humans believe is due others or themselves.
By that union, we are all transformed into glory. The collect speaks of us bearing our own cross, and being changed into Jesus’ likeness (a restoration of the likeness that we lost at the fall) from one degree of glory to the next. The transfiguration is one of the prime texts of divinization of the world. The glory of God transforms everything with which it comes in contact, and in the Incarnation, human nature has been glorified. We pass from one degree to another as we accept the vocation to be a blessing to the world.