The Last Sunday after The Epiphany - 10 February 2013

Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
II Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Saint Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]


Background:  The Transfiguration
The readings for the celebration of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, which is celebrated on the sixth of August, are for the most part repeated, with the exception of the second reading, on this Last Sunday after the Epiphany.  This observance (6 August) is much older in the Eastern Church, where it may have honored the dedication of three basilicas on Mt. Tabor.  In the West, it began to be celebrated in the 9th Century, when it was made a universal feast by Pope Callixtus III to commemorate the victory at the Siege of Belgrade in 1456.  For Anglicans the feast day was removed in 1549, and then restored in 1561.  In the American Church it was restored with liturgical propers in 1892.

Exodus 34:29-35

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.

This text from the “Priestly Source” attempts to note the effect of being in close contact with the God whose name is unpronounceable, and whose face could not be seen.  Thus Moses is portrayed as having an effect of his having conversed with God.  The shining (transfiguration) seems to become of such a temporal nature that the Israelites could see it as well.  Once Moses has related all that God wished to relate to Israel through him, he veiled his face once again.  This reading has a direct relationship to what Luke attempts to communicate in his Gospel.

Of interest is the note that when St. Jerome translated these passages into his Vulgate, the Hebrew word qeren, which noted the rays of light emanating from Moses’ face, can also be read as “horn,” and that is the word that Jerome used in his text.  Various Renaissance works of art (see Michelangelo) portray Moses with these “horns.”

Breaking open Exodus:

1.     Do you ever talk with God?
2.     Has your life ever been transformed by God?
3.     How did you express this transformation to others?

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.

The first five verses of this psalm have a cosmic outlook as they honor the God who is enthroned upon the cherubim.  Most ancient near eastern gods were depicted as standing on a strong beast.  God’s strength is noted in the trembling not only of the earth, but also of the people themselves.  The people, it seems, are quoted in the psalm, with the words of praise with which they extol God, Great and fearful, God is holy.  Such characterizations would be familiar to anyone living in the Levant in the Tenth Century BCE.  In verse six, however, the aspect changes to a more national one.  Moses and Aaron, and Samuel (prophets and priests) are the context of the national memory.  Implied in these verses is the wandering in the wilderness and the worship on Mt. Zion.  Here the focus is specifically on the God of Israel.

Breaking open Psalm 99
1.       Do we have a national God?
2.       If so, what is this God like?
3.       How is God universal and not 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.

This is the only reading that does not follow from the Ordo for the Feast of the Transfiguration (II Peter 1:13).  Instead a reading from II Corinthians is requested from the framers of the Lectionary.  The reference to Moses, however, connects it to the event of the Transfiguration and to the first reading from Exodus.  It is an allegorical interpretation of the first reading in which Paul expounds openly about the hope that we have in the covenant that amends the covenant of the Hebrews.  Paul uses the lesson well, peppering it with images, phrases, and words that call to mind the ancient lesson: the veil, hardened minds, freedom.  These elements of the stories of the Exodus, and the wanderings in the wilderness, serve as a backdrop for the truth that Paul longs to proclaim: There is freedom in Christ, and all light radiates from him.

Breaking open II Corinthians:

1.               What about your life have your veiled?
2.               How have the teachings of Jesus enabled you to face what you have veiled?
3.               What does an open future look like to you?

Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]
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.]

Several commentators have felt that this is an Easter appearance that was placed back into the ministry of Jesus.  That hypothesis is not much honored today.  There is, however, a dynamic of earlier liturgical celebrations (the Feast of the Tabernacles, or the six days that follow Moses’ appearance after hearing God’s voice.  The context crackles with the past, the present, and the future.  The text, “they saw two men” smacks of the Easter accounts, but it is the past that is remembered here in the persons of Moses and Elijah.  There is conversation as well, just as Moses had conversation with God.  Also of interest is “the departure” which is mentioned by the ancients – the departure to Jerusalem, the suffering and death that Jesus will experience.

One sees a foretelling of the Garden of Gethsemane, “weighed down with sleep”.  Luke is gracious in his telling, for they still witness the glory.  Peter, however, still wants to avoid the difficulty of the journey to Jerusalem and its ultimate consequences.  “Let us make three dwellings,” he says, a throwback to the tabernacle and to the Feast of the Tabernacles.  The voice from heaven brings the participants back to the present reality with the words, “listen to him,” a reflection of the Baptism of Jesus.  The reaction of silence is a conundrum, either a reflection of their fright, or an honoring of an earlier command of Jesus.

The optional continuation of the text helps us to complete the journey down from the mount.  Luke makes it clear that there is still work to do between the glories of the mountain and the sufferings of Jerusalem.  The story is one of faith (I begged your disciples to cast it out but they could not do it).  Jesus’ comment is harsh, and it makes us wonder as to whom it was directed.  Was it the on-going need of the people, the lack-luster faith of his followers, or sheer fatigue?  Perhaps it is of no consequence, for what was not accomplished on the mountain (the understanding of Peter) is accomplished ten-fold here, “And all were astounded.”  The ancient church loved this pericope because it brought together so many aspects of holiness of life: exorcism, faith, and prayer.  It is the reality of what we must do when we leave the “beauty of holiness” on a Sunday or Holy Day, and return to the difficulties of life.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What about your faith is the most glorious?
  2. What about your faith tempts you to ignore the world around you?
  3. What about this life is glorious to you?

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.

All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller


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