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Ah, Holy Jesus
Let us pray: Open the eyes of our hearts, dear Lord; enlighten us by your Word and Spirit, that we may see you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day. Amen.
Today is the Last Sunday of Epiphany, the Sunday before Lent. The Gospel today is the Story of Jesus’ Transfiguration which forms a nice bookend with the Story of his Baptism heard at the beginning of this Season.
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus decides to climb a nearby mountain with his inner circle of disciples: Peter, James, and John. He’s taking them on a retreat in order to prepare himself, and them, for what lies ahead-the journey to the cross. In Luke we are specifically told that they went up the mountain to pray! (vs.9:28 )
We aren’t given the actual name of the mountain, but since the 4th century it is assumed to be Mt. Tabor in central Galilee. I have never been to the holy land myself, but I’ve been told that if you are visiting the mountain today, you have to get out of a bus at the foot of the mountain and, then, get a taxi to the top. According to the locals, God is especially pleased with the Mount Tabor cab drivers because more praying goes on in those taxis, when they are speeding up and down the mountain road, than in the rest of the day or week!
What happens next in the story is not so easy to put into words because its shrouded in mystery. Fortunately, there are a few verbal clues about what happened-clues which help us begin to comprehend its significance.
-first, we are told that Jesus’ face lit up! (very much like Moses’ face did after he had been in God’s presence on Mt. Sinai). It makes one think of the glory of the Lord!
-secondly, there is the appearance of two Old Testament heroes-Moses and Elijah representing the Law and the Prophets. Some commentators refer to this scene as “the Mount Rushmore of Heaven”.
-thirdly, a cloud envelops them, symbolizing the ‘shekinah’, the presence of the Holy.
-and last but not least, there is a voice from the cloud, understood by those present to be none other than the divine voice.
The words spoken are very similar to those spoken at Jesus’ Baptism: “This is my son, my chosen One, listen to him”.
All these things taken together could mean only one thing-divine revelation! H. Richard Niebuhr referred to the nature of revelation as being “a luminous moment which illuminates all that has gone before and all that will follow”.
This story is, first and foremost, about Jesus, who he is and what he was about. Three of his disciples saw Jesus in a new light: “Ah, Holy Jesus!” In the dazzling light, they saw Jesus’ holiness shining through his humanness.
When I was young, I mostly thought of the word ‘holy’ in a negative way-especially when I encountered people who had a ‘holier than thou’ attitude. When I heard the old hymn, “Take time to be holy”, I thought it meant spending more time trying to be more religious! (That’s the last thing I wanted to be when I was a teenager).
But actually that’s not what it means at all. When I studied for the ministry, I learned that ‘holy’ basically means ‘of God’. God is holy! That is God’s essential nature. To say that anything is holy is to say that there is something of God’s mark on it.
In an article in the Christian Century, written by author, Annie Dillard, she confesses that she still is a Christian, although she admits that there are probably many Christians who would probably disagree with her about that. She states that she doesn’t believe in dogmas or in giving her intellectual assent to many beliefs.
HOWEVER, what she can affirm is this: “I know one thing for certain: there is holiness.”
Holy also means ‘to be set apart of a divine purpose’. Jesus was chosen by God and sent into the world to be ‘The Messiah’. “The Christ”
There is one word which alludes to this special mission. The word is ‘departure’. In verse 30 we learn that Moses and Elijah were speaking to Jesus about his ‘departure’. These ancient men of God were talking about the cross that awaited Jesus, just as he had been talking about it to his disciples prior to their mountain climb.
The word ‘departure’ literally means ‘exodus’. The meaning is clear: in the same way that Moses led his people in their exodus from slavery in Egypt, Jesus has been chosen to lead a new exodus. In the words of scholar N.T. Wright: "In the new Exodus, Jesus will lead all God's people out of the slavery of sin and death, and home to their promised inheritance – the new creation in which the whole world will be redeemed" (Luke for Everyone).
On this wondrous occasion, Peter, James and John witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration. Their eyes were opened and they saw Jesus in a new light. They saw him as he truly was; as God saw him.
There are occasions when we encounter the presence of the holy too-luminous moments when our eyes are opened and our hearts awakened. It’s as if we experience what has been there all along but in a deeper, more profound way.
I came across a wonderful quote recently by Mr. Rogers. (Yes, Mr. Rogers)
“I believe that appreciation is a holy thing-that when we look for what’s best in a person we happen to be with at that moment, we’re doing what God does all the time. So in loving and appreciating our neighbor we’re participating in something sacred.”
Luminous moments occur in the midst of daily life, mostly in surprising way.
We wake up to the presence of ‘Something More’ in our midst and we are hearts are strengthened. Or perhaps our fears are calmed by deep a deep peace that passes all understanding. Or maybe during a moment of grief, which washes over us, we unexpectedly feel comforted by a dear remembrance of the one we are missing-a remembrance which assures us of a love which transcends space and time. Whenever this occurs, we too know that we are standing on holy ground.
This story of Jesus’ Transfiguration speaks to us especially about who Jesus is for us. Jesus is the long awaited prophet like Moses-the Christ. Ann Svennungsen, commenting on this Bible story, points out the difference between Moses encounter with God on Mt. Sinai, and this one with Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor. Whereas Moses, on the occasion of his mountain-top experience, received Ten Commandments to pass on to God’s people, the disciples received only one commandment: “Listen to him”.
That’s what is important for us too. Part of what it means to love Jesus is to listen to him; listen to his teachings, listen to his life (primarily by listening to the Gospels). And, of course, listen to him still speaking to us by means of the Holy Spirit.
One of the poems of Ann Weems, entitled “A Listening” ties this thought in nicely with the season of Lent: “Going through Lent is a listening. When we listen to the word, we hear where we are so blatantly unloving. If we listen to the word, and hallow it in our lives, we hear how we can abundantly live again”.
Once the fog lifts, we see Jesus alone with his disciples again. He returns with them down the valley. Once there, they set off for Jerusalem. As he traveled the difficult journey to the cross, I have no doubt that he was strengthened by that luminous moment on the mountain. Just as I’m sure those three disciples were reassured and strengthened as well by this experience. Peter later refers to this event of transfiguration as a “lamp shining in the darkness”.