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Last Sunday in Epiphany: Transfiguration
Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
For this last Sunday in Epiphany – Transfiguration Sunday – Matthew continues his proof that Jesus not only replaces Moses and Elijah as God’s prophet, he is declared by God in a voice that roars out of a cloud to be God’s Son, and we are commanded to listen to him. While the portion of Exodus that is paired with the story in Matthew is blatantly cherry-picked, it is clearly intended to illustrate that the new covenant has replaced the old. Psalm 2 reinforces the theme, as God’s “Anointed” – read “Christ” – is established as ruler over the nations. Then, to head off the 1st Century realists who accused Christians of making all up out of whole cloth, the writer of the 2nd letter attributed to the apostle Peter declares that he himself was there when the transfiguration happened, and furthermore, no one makes up prophecy from human mind; it arises from the inspiration of the holy spirit: God speaks, Peter says, and you had better believe that Jesus is coming again.
These readings are straying far from any possibility of meaning for 21st Century , post-modern Christians. The scene in Exodus just before the one designated to be read on this Transfiguration Sunday is primal – archetypal (Exodus 24:1-8). The Hebrew people agree to abide by God’s law by first sharing a sacrificial meal of roasted bulls; then God’s High Priest Moses seals the deal by throwing the bulls’ blood first over the altar representing God and then over the people. This kind of commitment is incomprehensible to sophisticated 21st Century folk who have trouble keeping New Year’s Resolutions. This God is not going to listen to lawyers’ arguments about how the contract becomes invalid as soon as things get tough.
Nevertheless, the new covenant is indeed validated in blood. In the 21st Century, with God reduced to an epithet, and Jesus seriously dead and unlikely to come again, transfiguration has little to do with auras of holy light and basso-profundo pronouncements from fog-shrouded mountains conferring supernatural powers on God’s chosen one. Power is not supernatural magic conferred by an interventionist god; nor is Power to be appropriated or claimed through deliberate, ego-driven action. Despite the messianic claims of world leaders – political or religious – Power is a true covenant, consummated in the life blood of each individual, which comes from the realization of each person’s life purpose. Transfiguration is the change in appearance and form that allows us to recognize that Power, and it comes about in two ways: 1) through a pivotal experience such as surviving something against all odds; or 2) a long slog through the difficulties of letting go of who we think we are, and what we think we are supposed to do – i.e., Life.
Because of the truncated liturgical year caused by the Roman method of determining the date of Easter, this last Sunday before Ash Wednesday 2008 falls at a time that is full of applicable metaphor. The Moon is waning to Dark – the New Moon will rise on Ash Wednesday. The week ends with St. Brigid’s Feast Day, February 1; Candlemas (the purification of the Virgin, 40 days after giving birth), February 2; and the Celtic celebration of the return of the light at Imbolc, also on February 2 (the original feast time appropriated by the Roman church); not to mention the corruption of all this in Ground Hog Day, when the shadow prompts the ground hog to scurry back into his den, leaving us with six more weeks of Winter. Scientifically, this is the time of year in the northern hemisphere when enough light has returned to cause chickens to begin laying again; the first hoofed animals are born and there is milk again. Astronomically, the Sun reaches 15 Degrees Aquarius on Monday February 4. The Planet has made one-half of one-quarter of the return trip around the Sun.
Transfiguration as holy light is inevitable in the natural world, where the kenotic God rules in justice and life. Only humans seem to prefer the unnatural world, where God is dead and injustice holds sway. Jesus was forever reminding everyone he talked to that the Kingdom of God – God’s Imperial Rule – God’s Realm – is within us, and all around us. All we have to do is look and listen. God’s Covenant of non-violent justice-compassion may have originally been consummated in the flesh and blood of the best of the herd, eaten in a meal shared with God through a roasting, consuming fire – an elemental meaning that repels post-modern people. But Matthew’s story makes two points that still resonate despite our post-modern divorce from God’s natural world. The first is that God says, “This is my Son. Listen to him.” The second is that Matthew’s Jesus says to his freaked-out disciples, “Get up. Do not be afraid.”
Like the Groundhog, who is frightened by his own shadow – so much that he dives back into his safe home, leaving the rest of the world to the deprivations of winter – we are terrorized by the shadow: the spectres of war, famine, disease, and death, and also by our own shadow selves, whose purpose eludes us, and whose nature we are afraid to look at. But Jesus tells us to get up – don’t be afraid. Have the trust in the rhythms of the natural world that the grass has – which is here today and tomorrow is tossed into the oven. Get up – don’t be afraid. Those who hunger and thirst for justice will have a feast. Get up – don’t be afraid to do what you know you are supposed to do.
This weekend’s dark Moon invites us to withdraw into meditation or deep prayer to consider what the coming season of Spring and Lent may bring forth in our own lives as we too turn toward the light, rebirth, and resurrection. The Goddess/Saint Brigid is the patroness of poetry, metal-working, and healing – an inspiration for all the creative tasks that are most vital for sustaining human life. Even the Roman gloss that declares a celebration of the “purification of the virgin” 40 days after giving birth provides a metaphor of preparation and dedication to the work to come.
God’s Realm – as always – offers yet again the free gift, charis – grace – another chance to renew the Covenant.