February 26, 2017
What is the transfiguration and why do we celebrate it twice during each calendar year?
The accounts of Jesus undergoing some type of transformation on a "mountain" (geologically there are only hills in Galilee) are contained explicitly in Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; and Luke 9:28-36. This incident is also referenced in 1 Peter: 16-18, and some think alluded to in John 1:14. With so much attestation this story has been the focus of inquiry, reflection, and fascination with Biblical commentators and preachers since the time of the early second century. Two the of the theological giants, Origen, who compiled the first Gospel parallels, and Irenaeus, known to us from his famous saying, 'The glory of God is man (human unit) fully alive' in "Against Heresies," spent time analyzing and commenting on what the account had to say about God and Jesus.
There is a separate feast day, the fixed date of August 6, when the Transfiguration is celebrated and it is a date so important that when the feast occurs on a Sunday, it supersedes other appointed readings. The Gospel reading for the feast is always the account from Luke. Therefore, it is possible (and will happen in August of this year) that this story will be read twice.
Specifically, this Sunday, as in all the Lectionary cycle years, the story of Jesus being transfigured on the mountain brackets the season after the Epiphany wherein all the stories are dealing with how God is manifested through Jesus' actions as a healer, teacher, prophet, and Son of God. The beginning of this bracketed season is the Baptism of our Lord and in each account, the voice of God, either to Jesus privately or the gathered crowd, affirms Jesus as his beloved Son.
In the seasonal story, this is a pivotal moment to be followed by Peter's confession and Jesus' journey to Jerusalem, a place he had not yet visited, and his encounter with the physical and spiritual forces contending with him from among the leaders of his own people and from Rome.
It appears to be significant that in his transformed state, Jesus was joined by Moses the law giver whose grave was not marked and who may have been taken to the kingdom of heaven after his death, and Elijah, the first of the classical prophets, who according to the Hebrew Bible was apotheosized into the kingdom of heaven in a whirlwind by flying chariot, 2 Kings 2:1 ff. Since the time of Origen, commentators have concluded that this was an experience which showed Jesus bringing together the Jewish strains of the law and the prophetic voice into the fulfillment of God's purpose.
The commentators of the late 19th and 20th century, working from the historical mindset have had trouble with this story and its veracity. And yet, the church continues to honor the tradition. The best explanation for the honor given this story and the best way to approach its mystery may come from the Bard of Avalon: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Hamlet (1.5.167-8).
The Rev. David Lucey