Sunday, February 18, 2007

Transfiguration Sunday

Luke 9

28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now 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. 33Just 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. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When 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.

My son is a film snob. After six years of maintaining our weekly commitment to see a film, his taste is best described as “eclectic” with a definite preference of “art house” films.

Like all parents who take their work as parents seriously, I have developed elaborate ways to manipulate my son into believing that the films I choose are in fact the films he chose. Case in point: Last Wednesday I picked him up at the appointed time and asked “so, have you seen that new film by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck?”

“No, I haven’t” he replied, “does Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck have a film out?

“Yes, of course” I said, and played what always becomes my trump card: “And his film has been nominated for an Academy Award…want to see it?” At this point I had him. The combination of Oscar and an obscure sounding director gets him every time.

We saw the film Isaac thought he chose, “The Lives of Others,” and would encourage you to see it. The film is set in East Germany in 1984 and centres on a State Security agent (Stasi) assigned to spy on a famous playwright and his partner, a famous actress. The assignment is complicated by the fact that a high government official has a romantic interest in the actress and has ordered the investigation to discredit the playwright and clear the way for a relationship. Wiesler, the Stasi agent, is assigned to watch this couple. In learning about their lives, and learning the true nature of his assignment, his view of reality begins to change. I won’t spoil the rest.

Part of the appeal of this film is to learn more about waning days of East Germany (GDR) and relive some of the history of my lost youth. One of the wonderful things about having a son with similar interests is being able to describe things from the past that I recall first hand (such as the Cold War) and discover together how the world has changed. Being born 2 years after the Berlin Wall came down, Isaac belongs to another age—perhaps an equally frightening age—but certainly another age.

For those of us that lived in the midst of Cold War, particularly in scary early Reagan years, it all seems quite unreal now. Europe divided, NATO troops along the frontier, a commercial airliner shot down for drifting into Soviet airspace, even the name “Soviet Union” seems like some long ago era. Such is the nature of human history. What seems far off is recent history, but superceded by recent events. The end came quickly for the GDR and the Soviet Union, and the world moved on.

But more was happening, that day that the wall came down. Behind the wall, amid the population of the former East Germany, there was a sudden end of fear. Suddenly the people were no longer terrified of their government, and were willing to act collectively to end tyranny. It too tremendous courage and a willingness to see the world through new eyes. It was as if there was a sudden burst of light and people could see the reality of where they lived and demanded a new beginning.


Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

Bathed in light, a new reality appeared. Ignore the fact that Peter and company miss the point of this experience. They will have time to catch up. Bathed in light, we the reader know that this is a significant turning point in the story of Jesus. This is a “mountaintop experience” that will inform most of the rest of the earthly ministry of Jesus as he “sets his face” Jerusalem.

Yet how are we to understand this event? What did the disciples see that day and how can we avoid the trap they fell in, which is to stop to long. In their desire to erect monuments they saw an endpoint, a conclusion, when in fact it was just a sign. It was a sign and a waypoint that led up another mount, to the Holy City and the cross.

The clue to understanding this passage is cleverly hidden in the unfolding conversation. In verse 31 we read that Moses, Elijah and Jesus “were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Now, for Peter, James and John, only recently introduced to the idea of Jesus’ death, this would have made little sense. They would not have twinned the idea of a violent death with an “accomplishment” in Jerusalem. They were confused. We, however, have the advantage of knowing the end of the story, and know where this is headed.

But the is more: hidden is the Greek original is another clue as what is really happening here. Where we read “speaking of his departure” it translates literally “speaking of his exodus.” Let me get this straight, you are thinking: Jesus is having a conversation with Moses on the mountaintop, and Luke says they were speaking of his “exodus” and we’re neck deep in important symbols and the translators simply replace “exodus” with “departure.” Strange, but true.

Translated properly, they (and we) are speaking about something much larger than a departure, we are speaking about an exodus: and that means were are speaking about liberation, freedom from bondage, and the powerful activity of God in human history. Not bad for adding a single word through mistranslation.

So transfiguration is much more than simply being overwhelmed by light and receiving a blessing. It is more than a rest before the journey to Jerusalem begins. These words belong to Walter Wink:

Transfiguration is living by vision: standing foursquare in the midst of the broken, tortured, oppressed, starving, dehumanizing reality, yet seeing the invisible, calling it to come, behaving as if it is on the way, sustained by elements that have come already, within and among us.

In other words, it is standing near cross. As we prepare to enter the season of Lent, we are asked to prepare for Holy Week: prepare for Last Supper, betrayal, death, waiting, Resurrection and glory. It is a journey we make, pausing for each station and reflecting on the meaning for our lives. At this moment we are begin stretched to look backward and forward and make a connection between suffering and liberation.

The light of transfiguration shines on the suffering in this world, as it shone on the suffering of the Israelites long ago. The people were enslaved, and cried out to God to release them from their plight. The moment Moses understood he could help God to free his people there was transfiguration. When Moses understood that he could speak to power and work to defeat Pharaoh, there was transfiguration. And when people dropped their tools and began walking east there was transfiguration. Freedom was not immediate—there were many trials ahead—but the people were transformed and ready for what lay ahead.

From Walter Wink:

In those moments when people are healed, transformed, freed from addictions, obsessions, destructiveness…or when groups or communities or even, rarely, whole nations glimpse the light of the transcendent in their midst, there the New Creation has come upon us. The world for one brief moment is transfigured. The beyond shines in our midst—on the way to the cross.


Another film I hope to see in the next few days, “Amazing Grace,” presents William Wilberforce’s lifelong campaign to ban slave trading in the British Empire. Friday is the 200th anniversary of the passage of the Slave Trade Act, an important milestone in the eventual abolition of slavery throughout the Empire. And while the film and the media will recall this modern era exodus, there will be other voices that will remind us that while no longer legal in any county in the world, slavery still exists. There are slave markets operating openly in Sudan, and conditions of virtual slavery that exist in many other places. The Anti-slavery Society suggests that there may be as many as 27 million people worldwide who live in conditions that could best be described as slavery.

When will they witness transfiguation? When will the light of God’s justice shine brightly on their situation? And when will the situation of the poorest Canadians become visible to the majority of our population. Every week we feed the invisible poor, those who labour at minimum wage or exist on minimal social assistance and have become our own domestic example or virtual slavery: dependent, dehumanized, and largely ignored. When will the wall that separates rich from poor in this country finally come down? Who will make a film about it? Who will tell their story?

Transfiguration takes us from new vision to a time of suffering and finally to liberation and freedom. The cross of Jesus is our next exodus, the next time God will intervene in human history to free us from sin and death. Looking back we give thanks for the new life we received, and looking forward we say “may it always be so.” Amen.


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