Sunday, March 03, 2019

Transfiguration Sunday

Luke 9
28 About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. 29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. 31 They spoke about his departure,[a] which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. 32 Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. 33 As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.)
34 While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” 36 When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen.

Built in 3200 BC, this neolithic site predates both Stonehenge and the pyramids at Giza.

The site is Newgrange, in County Meath, Ireland, in the northeast of the country, about 30 kilometers south of the border that’s not meant to be a hard border. It’s a large, circular mound, nearly 300 feet across, with an inner passageway that leads about a third of the way into the monument, and chambers inside. Scholars calculate that the mound is made up of 200,000 tonnes of rock, some quarried from the shore of the nearby Boyne, and some carried from as far as 50 km away.

The purpose of the mound was a matter of speculation for centuries. In Irish folklore, it was the home of The Dagda, the chieftain-god, and his son Aengus, the god of love, youth and poetic inspiration. In art, Aengus is depicted with singing birds circling his head, sort of awkward and charming all at the same time.

When archaeologists finally began to study the site, it’s amazing purpose became clear. Build into the ceiling of the long passageway is a roofbox—like a vent for light—designed to flood the innermost chamber with light during sunrise on the winter solstice. But don’t book your holiday just yet: the lucky few who get to experience the flood of light on the morning of the solstice have won a national lottery for the opportunity to be there, never more than twenty people per year.

Of course, when we were there, the floodlight installed at the entrance to the roofbox created the same effect, making to December 21 at the flip of a switch. Yet even with the somewhat cheesy-sounding demonstration, the effect is remarkable. What began as a darkened cave is suddenly glowing, illuminated by a distant bulb and filled with light.

And as with any remarkable thing created by the ancients, it raises a number of questions. How could they align the structure so perfectly? How did they manage to construct something that still fulfills its original purpose over 5,000 years later? And why the solstice? What need was being met?

I guess if we were honest, we might say the solstice is a bit of a let down. Psychologically, the knowledge that the light has begun to return, and that the shortest day of the year has passed, gives us a bit of a boost. Ironically, the worst of winter is yet to come, but the return of the light seems like an important yearly marker. It always takes weeks before you can notice the lengthening of days, but on the solstice we’re told it’s happening, and that’s often good enough.

The ancients, however, weren’t satisfied with being told about the solstice—they wanted something tangible, something dramatic—and they therefore created Newgrange and countless other neolithic sites aligned with the annual event. And somehow prehistoric engineers found a way.

Our passage for today, the transfiguration, is a solstice of sorts, a sudden illumination that marks a significant shift in the story of Jesus. And it seems to have both the dramatic appearance of a shift like Newgrange, and the subtle-yet-obvious sense that something is happening in the story. Let me explain.

In the previous chapter of Luke (8), Jesus is hitting his stride, teaching and healing, raising the dead, and calming a storm. It’s mid-ministry, demonstrating the power of God in healing and also demonstrating Jesus’ unique relationship with the natural world. Then, as now, we struggle to understand. But we can understand the outline of his important work, and lessons shared only reinforce the movement underway.

And then the transfiguration happens. Suddenly the supernatural and the symbolic meet, as Jesus is illuminated in the presence of Moses and Elijah. And as if overwhelmed by the event, the three disciples are drowsy, then suddenly awake, and anxious to build monuments to this moment. Then there is cloud, and an affirming voice, and Jesus is once again alone with his friends. It ends as quickly as it began, and his ministry resumes.

The dramatic elements are obvious, the illumination and the appearances, Jesus the new Moses perhaps, to liberate us from sin and sorrow, and Jesus the new Elijah, defending God from the priests of Baal, in whatever form they now appear. But there are subtle signs too, more-or-less hidden amid the light and the drama: Luke records that Jesus and his famous companions were having a conversation, saying “they spoke about his departure,[a] which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.”

They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. The Greek for departure is exodos, with an O, which sounds suspiciously like the theme of our old friend Moses. But that seems to be a coincidence, and the word is really related to the theatre. In the theatre, the exodos is the closing scene, after the chorus has made some sort of summation, and our hero departs.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Jesus, Moses and Elijah were discussing Greek theatre, rather they were having a conversation with the outline of a Greek tragedy. And for that, we need a dictionary. According to Collins, a Greek tragedy is “a play in which the protagonist, usually a person of importance and outstanding personal qualities, falls to disaster through the combination of a personal failing and circumstances with which he or she cannot deal.”

So let’s see how this fits. Jesus predicts his death twice in the ninth chapter of Luke, once before the transfiguration and once after. In the first instance, Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Lord’s Messiah, and Jesus says ‘tell no one.’ And then he says “this is gonna get me killed. I will be rejected by religious people, I will be murdered, but on the third day I will rise again.” The disciples are obviously stunned into silence.

After the transfiguration, the same story:

While everyone was marveling at all that Jesus did, he said to his disciples, 44 “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.” 45 But they did not understand what this meant. It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it, and they were afraid to ask him about it.

So we can see the importance of the sidebar between Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Jesus self-understanding has matured to the place where we understands the coming tragedy, but what can he do with this knowledge? The disciples can’t talk about it. In one instance they are stunned into silence, in the other, they start arguing about which one is the greatest. If Jesus wants to discuss the events that will soon unfold in Jerusalem, he’s going to need more sophisticated conversational partners than the twelve disciples.

So is it a tragedy, in the Greek sense? Jesus is a person of “person of importance and outstanding personal qualities,” and he certainly falls into disaster, but then the definition becomes an open question. Yes, he is caught up in circumstances with which we cannot deal, namely the people who actively plotting his destruction. But what about personal failing? Jesus is without sin, but is he without personal failing?

I would argue that anyone willing to take on the sins of the world is flirting with a personal failing. Like loving too much or giving too much, “all our sins and griefs to bear” seems foolhardy in scale. Read a paper, grab a history book, ask anyone to speak candidly about their regrets, and you will scratch the surface of the indescribable burden Jesus is willing to bear. It’s tragic that we generate so much trouble, and a double-tragedy that Jesus is there to save us from ourselves.

But that’s grace, the unconditional love that we can’t fathom and largely don’t deserve. But grace abounds, grace upon grace, beginning at Calvary and ending with an empty tomb, the reminder that death is destroyed and new life follows for each of us. No wonder the twelve met Jesus with silence then bickering: heaven opened and they couldn't see a thing.

We, of course, have the illumination of scripture and the Light of the World to guide us. We can move past stunned silence and occasional bickering to see the whole story, to understand the context of Jesus’ life and teaching, to see the end of the story, the exodos, and his departure to be with God. We know that Jesus intercedes for us, hears our prayers, lights our path, and we know that our “sins and griefs” are covered too.

Transfiguration is our spiritual solstice, both a burst of light and the beginning of a subtle movement down to Holy Week and Easter. Next week is Lent One, and our preparation for the crown of the year will begin in earnest. For today, we can bask in this divine light, aware that it lights our path to salvation, and the grace that abounds. Amen.


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