Sunday, August 6, 2017

Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord

There's proper Christian apocalypticism and then there is end-time madness. Jesus's Transfiguration, rightly grasped, is the former. The difference between apocalypticism properly understood and the kind of madness that grips people regarding the end-of-the-world is the difference between hope and fear. On the one hand, in a very real sense, due to the fall, the world is always in a mess. On other hand, God is at work in the mess accomplishing his purposes not despite the mess, but through it. "Bless this mess," then, becomes a form of the cry of some of the earliest Christians: Maranatha!.

In today's Gospel reading, we heard without much adieu, "Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother, John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them" (Matt 17:1-2a). Moses and Elijah, traditionally taken to represent the Law and the prophets respectively, appeared alongside Jesus. Matthew tells us that they "conversed" with Jesus. He gives us no insight into what they might have discussed.

I don't think it's too much to say that what Peter and the sons of Zebedee beheld that day was not necessarily things as they really are as much as things as they were meant to be and ultimately will be; the world transformed into what God created it and is redeeming it to be. After all, "apocalypse" literally means "an uncovering," a revelation.

Like Peter in this pericope, we are quick to memorialize things. He wanted to make three tabernacles, three booths- one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. To memorialize something in this way usually means being in a rush to put it in the past. Perhaps we can go back and revisit the memory: "Remember that time Jesus turned bright white and we saw him talking to Moses and Elijah? I wonder what they were talking about?"

The Transfiguration, by Raphael, ca. 1520

I find it interesting that Peter makes his suggestion to erect three booths, or tabernacles, before they were overshadowed by the cloud. Upon being overshadowed, they heard the voice of the Father declaring, as he had at Jesus's baptism: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased" (Matt 3:17). This is an encounter with ultimate reality! They experienced a theophany, an apocalypse. The only response to their encounter was to fall flat on their faces and be "vehemently," or "tremendously," afraid. Yes, there is an adverb in the original Greek to go with the verb indicating "they were afraid." Were that the sum total of their experience it may well have led the three disciples to adopt what is characterized as a kind of end-time madness, which deals in death and despair and turns God into an angry tyrant looking to exact revenge upon an unrepentant world with Jesus as his agent of mayhem.

What happened next was Jesus touched them- this is important. He touched them while they were still lying prostrate on the ground, afraid to look up. As he touched them he said, "Rise, and do not be afraid" (Matt 17:7b). Upon feeling his touch and hearing his words, it seems they felt it was safe to look up and stand up. When they looked, "they saw no one else but Jesus alone" (Matt 17:8b). This is the revelation, the apocalypse, the uncovering! While they did not yet possess full knowledge, they would never look at anything the same way again. Notice, there was no more discussion of erecting memorials. Why? Because Jesus walked down the mountain with them. God was with them, not left behind on the mountainside. God is with us, too.

You were transfigured in baptism. In the waters of baptism who you really are, who God created and redeemed you to be, was made known, was uncovered, revealed. What up until that moment was implicit became explicit. We also encounter Jesus each time we come to Mass. In the Eucharist the eschaton, the apocalypse, the final revelation of God is made immanent, just as it was for Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor. In the Eucharist, Jesus does not merely draw near to you, or make an appearance in our midst. He comes to be in you in order to transfigure you, to complete the good work he began in you with your baptism.

When you are dismissed from Mass, you are sent forth in the knowledge that Jesus is not only with you, but in you. As someone touched, encouraged, and empowered by Christ, you are to make him present wherever you go. How the world is transformed until Christ returns is by your proclaiming, "Lord, bless this glorious mess!" You make the mess glorious by engaging in it for Christ's sake, which primarily means helping those in need, working to see those who are without have what they need. In biblical language, this means taking care of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger you encounter.

My friends, in Christ, by the power of the Spirit, surely God is with us.

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