Grace Presbyterian Church
February 23, 2020, Transfiguration A
See More Clearly
The text of the anthem we heard from the choir earlier in the service is indeed claimed to be taken from a poem attributed to one Richard of Chichester, a thirteenth-century clergyman who served most notably as the Bishop of Chichester in England. According to legend Richard uttered the words as part of a larger utterance upon his deathbed. While many divergent versions of this prayer made their way into circulation, some of which bear little resemblance to the words heard here, the popularized version seems to have appeared first in the early twentieth century, first as a poetic prayer and then as a hymn. While that version circulated in some church circles, the most broadly popular adaptation of the text happened in 1971, set to music by Stephen Schwartz and included in his musical Godspell, which finally appeared on Broadway in 1976.
There’s no evidence to suggest that Richard of Chichester had the subject of today’s readings in mind when he put together his poem. (For that matter, I’m pretty sure Godspell doesn’t attempt to include the Transfiguration.) Nonetheless, it might make sense to look at one and see or hear the other; for those disciples who went up the mountain with Jesus, what they saw there showed them Jesus in a far different way than they had known before. It seems fair to say that the event did cause the disciples to see Jesus more clearly.
The event is included in the three synoptic gospels, though not in John. As is often the case the three gospels cover the same basic material but each from a distinct perspective and distinct point to make about it.
For Matthew, maybe the most distinctive touch comes near the end of the account. The basic narrative is familiar; the three go up the mountain with Jesus; Jesus is transfigured, displayed in glory and dazzling brightness, with Moses and Elijah appearing and talking to him; Peter, as usual, puts his foot in his mouth suggesting that they build tabernacle-like shelters for the three figures; the light becomes blinding, driving the disciples to their knees, and the voice from heaven pronounces Jesus as God’s beloved Son – echoing the voice heard after Jesus’s baptism – but with the added imperative “Listen to him!”
To this point one could find a lot of similarity between this story and the one read from Exodus, about Moses’s encounter with God on Mount Sinai. Matthew’s narrative also seems to echo language found describing particular visions of dazzling glory found in prophetic literature such as the book of Daniel, chapter 10 in particular. This is a new thing in the experience of the disciples themselves, but they’ve probably been taught a few lessons about similar, or at least similar-looking events.
But what comes next brings a different touch; the disciples are still cowering in fear on the ground (quite justifiably so, I’d say) when comes a touch on the shoulder, and a few gentle words: “Get up, and do not be afraid.” They look up and see no dazzling light, no transfiguring glory, no Moses or Elijah. Just Jesus, saying it’s time to go.
This is the touch that’s missing from the accounts in Mark or Luke; after all the glory, after all the terror, it’s just Jesus, telling them not to be afraid. It is an immediate reaffirmation that the same Jesus with whom they have been traveling, the one they have seen performing miracles and teaching and praying, is the same one they just saw glorified by God above, in the company of the two leading figures of their faith tradition.
The disciples have seen Jesus in a way they had not seen him before now, but they are also seeing that this glorified and transfigured Jesus is Jesus, their teacher and companion. This final touch, this final word of casting aside fear and getting back to work, seals that connection and that realization – that really was Jesus, that really was our Teacher, glorified and talking to Moses and Elijah up there on that mountain.
How does this kind of event implant itself in your memory?
Especially in a situation like this, one in which you’ve been strictly forbidden to talk about it “until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead,” how does your mind hold on to what you have seen and heard here? What does this show you about Jesus and how does this new sight stay with you?
For the most part we can’t really know; we don’t have James or John or Peter directly on record saying anything about this in the gospels – they apparently did follow Jesus’s instructions after all. Not even as the book of Acts follows the disciples after Jesus’s ascension do we get a particular recollection of the Transfiguration. The only possible hint we get is in today’s second reading, from the troublesome and difficult epistle near the end of the New Testament known as 2 Peter.
This is a troublesome book, for real. It carries Peter’s name (actually, Simon Peter’s name), but it is almost impossible to reconcile the apparent circumstances of its writing with what we know of Peter’s life. In fact, it is entirely likely that 2 Peter is chronologically the last of the books of the New Testament to have been written, possibly not even until the early second century (well after Peter’s death); at any rate it’s late enough that Paul’s letters are already starting to take on the status of scripture or something close to it (see 3:15-16). There are parts of the letter that frankly feel out of place in the New Testament.
Quite possibly it was written, however, by a student or disciple of Peter, using the medium of the letter to convey what his (or her?) teacher had passed on in his final days, in the midst of already turbulent times for the nascent church. In other words, it probably wasn’t written by Peter but it may well contain Peter’s message, albeit somewhat filtered and secondhand.
Written in the face of increasing difficulty with cynical opposition to the church’s witness, this letter puts forth the eyewitness accounts of Peter (and other eyewitnesses) as a defense against the claim of some that the gospel witness was nothing but “cleverly devised myths.” It is interesting that with all the potential things that Peter saw and conveyed to these students, the one that the final author chose was not something like the Crucifixion, the risen Christ, or the Ascension, but rather this Transfiguration – the “Majestic Glory” of God, the sound of the voice from heaven, the message “this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”; these did make a distinct impression on Peter’s memory, it seems, that he conveyed to those who took after him and that they in turn pass on to the readers of this epistle.
But what is it that the Transfiguration seems to show to Peter?
One of the frequently found liturgical formulas of the church in reference to Jesus is to speak of him as the one “who was and who is and who is to come,” an echo of a formula found in the first chapter of Revelation. What Peter seems to have grasped and conveyed to his followers is that this Transfiguration event showed him not just the Jesus who was or who is, but the Jesus who is to come – the one who will come again in glory, the one who will reign as our judge and our redeemer and our king for eternity. In the midst of the long journey to Jerusalem and the final end of Jesus’s earthly ministry, Peter and James and John saw in the transfigured and glorified Jesus nothing less than the eternal Jesus, the one in whom all our hopes are secured for now and the age to come.
This is perhaps a useful thing to remember, as we have come to the end of the season of Epiphany and approach the season of Lent. Indeed, Peter’s understanding as suggested in the epistle is an epiphany unto itself – a seeing of Jesus so much more clearly, in a way he had not imagined possible. And in the days before the church now, with the marking of the ashes to come this Wednesday and the slow journey to the cross and the grave, it’s good for us to have this epiphany, this fleeting yet indelible reminder of the one who was and who is and who most assuredly is to come, in whom is our hope and our safety and our eternity itself.
What a thing to see more clearly. And when we see Jesus more clearly in this way, how can we not love Jesus more dearly and follow Jesus more nearly?
For this glimpse of the glorified Christ, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #634, To God Be the Glory; #662, Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies; #193, Jesus, Take Us to the Mountain; #11, Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud