The Last Sunday after The Epiphany, 14 February 2010
II Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2
Saint Luke 9:28-43a
The readings today betray the ancient celebration of the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord on this last Sunday after the Epiphany, although other days were used for this celebration in the Western Church. In 1456, the Kingdom of Hungary struck back against an Ottoman incursion into the Balkans, and defeated them. The news of this victory reached Rome on 6 August, and Pope Calixtus III moved the celebration of the Feast to the 6th of August, to celebrate the Hungarian victory. So it remains on our calendar to this day. However, we are allowed to visit the readings early on this Sunday, as they prepare us for a glimpse of Christ in glory, before the privations of Lent and Holy Week.
This might also be a good time to learn a new word, “Theophany”. The word literally means “an appearance of the god.” Theophanies are present throughout the literature of the Ancient Near East, the first of them being in the Gilgamesh Epic. We know them in the Old Testament in appearances to Moses, Abraham, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, among others. In today’s readings we have two: the appearance to Moses (Hebrew Scriptures) and the appearance of Jesus in glory to the disciples (Gospel).
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
In this reading we see the results of a theophany (see notes above) written on the face of Moses as he comes down from the mountain. The whole saga of Israel’s “wanderings” from Egypt to the Promised Land are full of moments in which God is revealed to them. It is important to remember that this was a nameless and faceless God. The name provided to Moses is unpronounceable (YHWH), and no image of God was permitted (see the First Commandment). The people are clear about God’s presence, throughout the saga, by signs and events. There is the burning bush, the pillar of fire, and the “shekinah” – the glory that surrounded the Tabernacle. And there is this story, of a Moses who comes down, face shining, because he has had an encounter with God. The experience is so “enlightening” (pun fully intended) that Moses is forced to put on a veil to diffuse the divine light that emanates from his face. The nameless and faceless one is seen in those who live under the Law given on Sinai.
Breaking Open Exodus:
- What do you think it means that Moses saw and conversed with God – how is it important in these stories about Sinai?
- How is Moses anointed as a prophet and a leader? Where, when, and how does this happen?
- Spend some time in meditation on this Aaronic Benediction: "The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace."
Psalm 99 Dominus regnavit.
The LORD is King;
let the people tremble; *
he is enthroned upon the cherubim;
let the earth shake.
The LORD is great in Zion; *
he is high above all peoples.
Let them confess his Name, which is great and awesome; *
he is the Holy One.
"O mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity; *
you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob."
Proclaim the greatness of the LORD our God
and fall down before his footstool; *
he is the Holy One.
Moses and Aaron among his priests,
and Samuel among those who call upon his Name, *
they called upon the LORD, and he answered them.
He spoke to them out of the pillar of cloud; *
they kept his testimonies and the decree that he gave them.
O LORD our God, you answered them indeed; *
you were a God who forgave them,
yet punished them for their evil deeds.
Proclaim the greatness of the LORD our God
and worship him upon his holy hill; *
for the LORD our God is the Holy One.
Last Sunday we read of Isaiah’s vision of God in the Temple. In this Psalm we have a vision of God as King, displayed with all the panoply of an Ancient Near Eastern Court. God is pictured as enthroned “upon the cherubim”. Today, the word “cherub” conjures up puffy-cheeked babies with wings. Actually, the cherubim were mythological human/beasts (see photo above) upon whom the god sat. The story of the Golden Calf in the Old Testament is not about the people worshiping the calf, but rather the one who was seated on the calf – a god other than the God of Israel.
The psalm also mentions the Sinai story (in a pillar of cloud did he speak to them), and the prophets and priests that did God’s service (Moses and Aaron among his priests and Samual among those who call on his name). The whole of this psalm, then, is a theophany, an appearance of the nameless, faceless one as a mighty King and Judge. The holy mountain referred to in the Psalm is Zion, a hill upon which Jerusalem was built.
Breaking open Psalm 138
- Do these images of God, as oriental potentate, work for you? What is good about them, what is bad?
- In the psalm, what are the products of God’s kingship – what are the virtues that result from God’s rule?
- How does the perspective of the psalm change in verse six? Are the initial verses universal or national – are the final verses universal or national?
II Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2
Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
Therefore, since it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God's word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.
Often Paul, being the consummate Jew, will use an example from the Torah to bring home a point to his reader. In this case he takes the example of Moses that we read in the first reading for this morning. In the reading from Exodus, Moses veils his face to moderate the intense glory that was reflected in his face following his encounter with God. Paul turns the example, using the veil as an example of “blindness”, for in Paul’s mind, the people of Israel were not able to see beyond the Law. Look at Paul’s vocabulary and you can begin to see what his message is really all about: “unveiled”, reflected in a mirror” “freedom”, and “transformed.” Paul wants his hearers to understand that the Law is an incomplete image of what it is that God wants, and that with the courage that the Spirit offers, we can hear and see the truth.
Breaking open II Corinthians:
- In what ways has Christianity transformed you?
- What does Paul mean when he talks about “practicing cunning”, and “falsify(ing) God’s word”?
- In the opening line, what is the hope that causes acts of “great boldness?”
Saint Luke 9:28-43a
About eight days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ of God, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"--not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, "Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not." Jesus answered, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here." While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
The lectionary gives us the choice of dropping the final paragraph of the reading. To do that would mean loosing a marvelous contrast that underscores the enigma of being a follower of Jesus. The opening paragraph follows upon Peter’s great confession of faith at Caesarea-Philippi. It is time for those who would confess Jesus as the messiah to learn what that means, and it is a lesson that has several steps. The first is to have Peter’s confession confirmed by this theophany that allows the inner circle (Peter, James, and John) to see Jesus in all his glory. The next steps are difficult. Peter wants to stay on the mountaintop, but that is not where the action of the Gospel is to be. The succeeding steps begin in the paragraph following, where Jesus encounters an evil spirit, that the disciples could not cast out. So it follows for the remainder of the chapter, and beyond as the disciples, and we are tutored into what it means not only to see Jesus in glory, but also to follow him. In the last sentence, Luke uses a code word, “astounded”, that signals when the audience “gets” what’s going on.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- Why does Jesus appear with Moses and Elijah – what does that mean?
- Where have we heard the voice and the words from the cloud before?
- Why did the disciples keep quiet about this?
- Why do you think Jesus was angry in the second paragraph?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
O God, who before the passion of your onlybegotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.