The author of the Gospel of Mark tells us this Sunday that after a long journey of ministry, after healing men and women, old and young, after feeding thousands and calling a group of followers to go out and heal, love, and transform the lives of others, that Jesus brings Peter, James and John to the top of a mountain where he is transfigured. As we listen to how “his clothes became dazzling white,” I wonder, what the meaning of this transfiguration might be for you and me?
On one hand, we are told that the transfiguration takes place to reveal Christ’s glory prior to the crucifixion and resurrection. It is a source of hope, strength, and comfort to his disciples as they approach difficult times. On the other hand, as Jesus’ physical body is transfigured, it indicates the glorification of the human nature in Christ. This last is a reminder of the human capacity to be transfigured as well. Perhaps not as individuals, but as a community.
Paul the Apostle, in his letter to the people of Corinth, reminds us that we “all” are the body of Christ, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Cor. 12:27) And if Paul is correct in his description of Christ’s body, if we are truly created in the image of God as it is described in the book of Genesis (1:27), the miracles, the healing, the transformation that Jesus provided to the world through his ministry on this earth is possible for all of us, if only we all come together as a beloved community.
Perhaps it won’t be the transfiguration that Peter, James, and John experienced at the mountain, but if we are capable to come together and be the body of Christ in this world, our lives, our work, our hopes, our journeys will be transfigured as well.
During the inauguration of the 46th president of the United States, Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old poet, shared with all humanity images of the transfiguration that humanity can experience if we come together. Gorman read:
“For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Perhaps, as we listen to the transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, we should remind one another this Sunday that we all are part of the body of Christ, we all are called to a common mission, we all are called to walk together, to hope together, to dream together, to be together, and together be transfigured. And be the body of Christ.
I’m the youngest of three brothers. My oldest brother and I have always looked very similar. In fact, over ten years ago I met his wife’s sister and her kids and spent the day playing with them at the beach. The youngest was about 4 at the time and he kept calling me by my brother’s name. I would correct him, but he’d just look at me like I was dumb and repeat my brother’s name. His mom later apologized and just said, “Listen. Tomorrow he’ll talk about what a great day he had with your brother. Sorry, you guys look so much alike.” And it’s true. Despite being 5 years apart, we look very similar. It’s a little eerie.
All of that changed a few years ago when my brother had surgery to correct his jaw. We all have big jaws, but his was shaped in a way that when he bit down, his back teeth would hit and his front teeth would still be about 10 millimeters apart! Try eating pizza when your front teeth stay 10 millimeters apart!?!? So, they broke his jaw and rewired it and fixed his bite. Great for him. Except, now his smile is a little different and we don’t look as similar. I’m happy for my brother, because now he’s more whole than before, and he can function more as an adult. But I kind of miss his old look. I’ve grown used to the new smile by now, it’s just different.
So, Moses climbed the mountaintop and communed with God. Moses descends the mountain with the tablets of the covenant. We tend to picture Charlton Heston stoically walking with Roman numeral clad, ten-commandment tablets. Instead, a more accurate picture is Moses walking to the people with physical evidence of God’s covenant with the people. In the Old Testament, one of the major themes is that God is revealed to one person and through one is revealed to the many. We see this with Noah, then Abraham, and eventually Moses becomes a central figure in this theme. Another theme before Moses is that the covenants God made with the people were one-sided. After the flood, God puts the rainbow in the sky as a covenant that God would never again destroy all humanity. This covenant depended on God’s action and did not depend on human action. Similarly, God chose Abraham to be the father of God’s chosen people. Abraham didn’t really have to do much to fulfill this covenant (perhaps a little procreation). All of this changes with Moses.
As Moses descends the mountain with the tablets, God has made a covenant with the people, but the people make a covenant with God to remember to be God’s people. Part of that includes re-reading the covenant every year and re-promising to be God’s people. Included in this covenant is a bit of an ‘or else’, whereby God says, “I will be your God and you will be my people as long as…” This is a significant moment in human history as God’s revelation is taken to a new level. God chooses an entire people and leads them from slavery and into the Promised Land. In this moment, this encounter with God to receive the covenant, this encounter changes Moses life and his appearance. After the encounter with God, Moses’ face is transformed and the people are afraid. Moses has experienced the Glory of God in a way no human had since Adam and Eve. If we think about it, a glowing face seems a fitting response after such a supernatural experience!
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus ascends another mountain. He brings along Peter and John and they pray. One reason for this mountaintop prayer time is to show that Jesus fulfills the covenant with Moses. Jesus is able to hear the reading of the covenant that Moses brought down the mountain and re-promise to keep the covenant, as generations had done before him. Yet, Jesus is capable of fulfilling that covenant. Jesus hears the reading of the covenant where God says, “I will be your God and you promise to be my people.” And Jesus says, “Yes!” and the covenant is forever fulfilled—not ignored (Marcionites!), but fulfilled! So it makes sense that Jesus’ appearance, like that of Moses, is transformed. Jesus shines like the face of Moses. They are speaking of Jesus’ departure. Perhaps Jesus is making the new covenant with humanity, represented by Moses and Elijah, as they discuss Jesus’ coming death and resurrection? This new covenant seems to have Jesus saying, “I will be your God and you will be my people. And you are loved. Go and Love one another.” So, what does an encounter look like for us today?
There’s an older woman in our church, Mary. She might be one of the toughest people I’ve ever known. Mary’s also one of the best bakers I’ve ever experienced. In her mid-eighties, she still makes communion bread for us every Sunday. I love the symbolism of giving her communion each week. Here, she’s brought her gift to the church and offered it to God. The people bring her bread and the wine to the altar. Through the Eucharistic prayer, I the priest offer these gifts to God. In this great mystery, God transforms the gifts of the people. The bread that Mary has given to the congregation and the congregation has offered it to God, is now given back to the very same people, blessed and broken. This bread has encountered God on the mountaintop (well, the altar) and it will forever be different. And it’s given back to the people so they can go out into the world and love God and their neighbors, having encountered God. The people are changed.
What do you experience when you encounter God in the Eucharist each week? What would it be like if that encounter changed our appearance and people saw us and were afraid? I’d like to think that I’d feel loved by God and empowered to love the neighbors around me. This sounds like a simple thing. It sounds so basic and Sunday School-y to say that God loves me. Yet, if I truly knew and could embody the fact that God loves me, oh what a change! For now, I keep coming back each week, encountering God in the bread that has been to the mountaintop and broken for me.
The Rev. Jim Dahlin is Rector of St. Mary’s & St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains in Morganton, North Carolina. Despite looking like the bad guy in every World War II movie, his racially diverse, loving congregation has embraced him as they seek to faithfully worship God and figure out what it means to confess the Christian faith. Jim loves a challenging hike, a good pint of beer, riding his motorcycle and laughing. He is new to ordained ministry, but has been educated at various seminaries.