Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sermon, Last Epiphany B, Mark 9:2-9

What is the transfiguration? The easy answer is that it is that time when Jesus' appearance was changed and he spoke with Elijah and Moses. The complicated answer is that it is a mystery. That word, mystery, in the context of the Church, doesn't mean a riddle to be solved, and it doesn't mean some secret knowledge that provides a person with the password to eternal life. Mystery, in our context today, is that thing or situation whereby the secret plan of God is disclosed.

Mystery, in our context, is when the unknowable God becomes knowable. It's when the invisible is seen through faith. It's when we participate in the heavenly banquet with earthly food. It's this time of the already and the not yet. The transfiguration is that mystery made manifest.

I'm going to run through the transfiguration story one point at a time. In today's passage, Mark indicates that "After six days . . ." Origen ties this back to the creation story where God worked for six days and then rested. He rested and reveled in this work that he called very good and it was on that seventh day that he became one with all of creation and all creation one with him. Now, in today's story, after six days the presence of God is once again revealed in creation. After six days of feeding the hungry, curing the sick, arguing with Pharisees and disciples, after six days of this the glory of God shines forth once more in creation through the person of Jesus Christ.

After six days, Jesus was transfigured. The word "transfiguration" comes from the Greek root word that gives us metamorphosis. In other words, this was a permanent and profound change. Like a caterpillar is transfigured into a butterfly, or the stone slab that was transfigured into the statue of David, the transfiguration allows us to glimpse Jesus for who he really is: Son of God, second person of the Trinity. Where before we saw the human Jesus interacting with the divine, now we see the divine interacting with humanity. Now we can glimpse the mystery of Jesus. Now we can glimpse the mystery of the fully human and the fully divine.

During this transfiguration event, Elijah and Moses appear with Jesus. What I've read and heard countless times, and you probably have has well, is that this represents Jesus' fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets; the Law being represented by Moses, and the Prophets being represented by Elijah.

But there's another reason for having Jesus conversing with Elijah and Moses, and it's more poetic, I think, than anything else. In Matthew and Luke, the writers have Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah; in Mark, however, he is talking with Elijah and Moses. Elijah, by his being taken up to heaven in the fiery chariot, represents all those people who are to be found alive at the end of the age; those who, like Elijah, have not yet died. And Moses, who did die and was buried, represents all those who came before and have died in service to the Lord. In other words, in this meeting of Jesus with Elijah and Moses, we have a glimpse of Jesus coming in glory and judging the living and the dead.

After Jesus, Elijah, Moses and the disciples have been standing there for awhile, a cloud comes and overshadows them all. Clouds signify divine presence in Hebrew Scriptures; think about the cloud that helped lead the Israelites out of Egypt, or the cloud at the top of Mt. Sinai with Moses, or the cloud at the tent of meeting, and the cloud that appeared over the tabernacle while on their journey. Clouds signify those thin places where the human can encounter the divine. But that's not all.

Where have we heard this word "overshadow" before? "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you . . ." the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, she was enveloped in the presence of God, and through that mystery she conceived the Christ child in her womb. And we wonder how this could be. We also wonder how ordinary bread and wine become the body and blood of our Savior.

And finally we have the command from Jesus not to tell anyone about what has taken place until after he has risen from the dead. Why the mystery? Why the secrecy? Because, again, this wasn't a mystery to be solved, or a secret that offered special knowledge; instead, this was part of the mystery of God, part of the secret plan of God.

Part of the mystery of our faith we proclaim is that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. How does a dead man live? How is Christ fully human and fully divine? We don't know, but we take it on faith that that's the way it is and we do our best to live into that incarnational mystery.

Part of the secret plan of God includes his desire that we are to experience him in our lives. This is why the Church year is broken down into seasons, so that we can experience him at various stages. This is why the disciples were told to wait, because they couldn't simply be told about Jesus through his transfiguration, they had to experience his death and resurrection. This is why we don't simply say, "Christ is risen," but why we participate in that event at the Great Vigil.

The secret plan of God is to draw all people into his loving embrace through an experiential mystery of faith. Through our liturgy we experience the divine mystery. It's the give and take between presider and congregation. It's the interplay between us and God. It is that time when we are overshadowed by the Most High, when we catch a glimpse of the invisible, when we learn a little bit more about the unknowable, and when earthly food becomes a heavenly banquet.

This is all a mystery. We participate in the mystery of the divine through the liturgy. That secret plan of God isn't so secret, since it has been unmasked for us to see. And maybe, just maybe, through our participation in the mystery of faith, and through our participation in the secret plan of God, we ourselves will experience a profound and permanent change that transfigures us into that which God had in mind when we were created.


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