Sunday, February 14, 2010

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.

Don’t you miss the Cold War just a little?

Friday night was lovely and all, nation after nation entering BC Place to the stirring sounds of a First Nations welcome, but something was different. Flag after flag was paraded into the crowded space, with the excitement of young athletes ready to amaze, but something was off. A vast array of nations came, some familiar, some I’m unable to place on a map, but where was the theme of my youth, where was the ideological struggle?

Sure, the games have always been pitched as peaceful competition, a source of hope for a world too often given to strife. But the real competition, the one that didn’t have a tally in the official medal count, was Us versus Them.

In those days, the parade of nations had tension, as the Soviet Union and East Germany and the rest of the Eastern Bloc entered and we fought down the urge to hiss. A few chemically altered young people entered the stadium, but what we saw was a group of dastardly villains, ready to tie a damsel to the tracks, fully aware that the express was on it’s way.

Yes, you might argue, we still have North Korea and China. I suppose, but the first has become a caricature of a caricature and the other is the nation that everyone is stumbling over to please, which is hardly the stuff of a good rivalry. Maybe the games have become about peaceful competition between nations after all, which sounds a tad dull, but better than what’s normally on the television.

Somehow the world changed. One day it was the Soviets, then the Commonwealth of Independent States (that was weird) and now the Russian Federation. Nations that longed for liberation parade on their own now, and we struggle to remember that Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were once captive nations. The world changed and we seem to quickly forget the great transformation that occurred, the great events that may define our time.

Maybe it’s the lack of an obvious moment, or maybe it’s the long shadow of 9-11, but for whatever reason we tend to forget the end of the Cold War, and the great transformation that occurred. Hinge moments are sometimes hard to identify, or only later become obvious, or take time to comprehend. This is not a new phenomenon:

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 too 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. The words “speaking of his departure” translate literally “speaking of his exodus.” Jesus is having a conversation with Moses on the mountaintop, and Luke says they were speaking of Jesus’ “exodus.” No wonder the translators replaced “exodus” with “departure,” because we’re stacking symbol upon symbol here, and I suppose they were trying to keep it simple.

Translated properly, however, we’re speaking about something much larger than a departure, we are speaking about an exodus: and that means we’re 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.

This week, I was alarmed to learn that twenty years have passed since the release of Nelson Mandela. Twenty years since the seemingly impossible became possible, and his quarter-century incarceration came to an end. Twenty years since the beginning of the end for white minority rule in South Africa and twenty years since the beginning of a series of remarkable events that culminated in a prisoner becoming president.

Like the fall of the Iron Curtain, too little time has passed for us to fully appreciate the scope of what happened. It will take another generation or two for people to see the modern Moses that walked away from Robbins Island that day. It was a transcendent moment—a transfiguration—that was soon overshadowed by the reality of everyday living.

What we are left with, I think, is local transfigurations to be recognized and marked. Nations rise and fall, but the local reality of struggle and liberation is ongoing. The important moments in history may not seem obvious, but the reality of poverty and oppression in the neighbourhood, doesn’t require the perspective of history to see.

And this is the local meaning of transfiguration: that a light is shining on the need for liberation, that the Christ-light of that day long ago continues to shine on everyone in need. All we need are the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Transfiguration is Exodus, the desire to walk away from Pharaoh and into the wonderful uncertainty of freedom.

Thanks be to God, amen.


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