Posts Tagged 'transfiguration'

For Feb. 15, 2015: Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year B

The Reading                                                         2 Kings 2:1-12

When Elisha inherits the mantle of his adoptive father, the great prophet Elijah, he requests a double share of Elijah’s spirit, because the other prophets would know that was the true heir’s proper share. Elisha certainly needs it to be God’s voice to the God-spurning kings of Israel and Judah.

The Response                                                       Psalm 50:1-6

In Psalm 50, the Lord summons all the earth for judgment. Showing the Lord’s power are the consuming flame and the storm. He will be judge and prosecutor. Verse 7, not included here, is sobering: “O Israel, I will bear witness against you; for I am God, your God.”

The Epistle                                                            2 Corinthians 4:3-6

In the second letter to the Corinthians, Paul confronts a difficult question: why do some people not accept the gospel? His answer here is that they are being kept in the dark by someone powerful who is not our God, for our God is in the business of giving light.

The Gospel                                                            Mark 9:2-9

As Mark 9 opens, Jesus has foretold his death to the disciples, horrifying Peter. Then Jesus takes Peter and two others up on the mountain, where they behold Jesus transfigured in light beyond light with the two great figures of Jewish history and hear the divine announcement that Jesus is God’s very own beloved son.


Further thoughts

The 1982 Book of Common Prayer refers to this Sunday as the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and it is certainly that. Methodists and Lutherans, among others, call it Transfiguration Sunday, from the Revised Common Lectionary readings that include the mountaintop experience with Jesus that so bedazzled and bemused Peter. (We Episcopalians, like our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox colleagues, also celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6.)

A much older name for this Sunday that precedes Ash Wednesday is Quinquagesima Sunday. That is the name used in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and it is the name under which, as a child more than a few decades ago, I learned about this Sunday in what is now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Quinquagesima is Latin for ‘fiftieth’: this is the fiftieth day, Sundays included, before Easter. It is preceded less precisely by Septuagesima Sunday (the Sunday nearest the seventieth day before Easter: septuaginta is Latin for ‘seventy’) and Sexagesima Sunday (the Sunday nearest the sixtieth day before Easter). Together, these three Sundays make up the pre-Lenten season, the season in which, historically, Christians turned from the joy of Christmas and Epiphany and prepared for the solemnity of Lent. In the Eastern Orthodox world, the week up to Quinquagesima Sunday is the last week before Easter in which meat products may be eaten, and the week after Quinquagesima Sunday—“Cheesefare Week”—is the last week in which dairy products are permitted.

Among Roman Catholics, of course, there are the traditions of the Carnival season (from Latin carnis ‘of flesh or meat’), the period of hearty eating (and sometimes hearty partying) before the Lenten feast; in some regions, Carnival begins right after the Epiphany, in others it is the week before Ash Wednesday, but most commonly Carnival starts on Quinquagesima Sunday; it always ends the evening before Ash Wednesday. Since the 15th century this time has been known in English as Shrovetide, from the verb shrive ‘to hear confession and/or pronounce absolution: during Shrovetide one went to confession—got shriven—so as to be morally clean for Ash Wednesday. Shrove Tuesday is the same day as Mardi Gras (French, ‘Fat Tuesday’) or Fastnacht (German, ‘evening of the fast’), the day before Ash Wednesday on which, by tradition, one eats pancakes in order to use up the last of the butter (fat) and eggs in one’s house before Ash Wednesday morning.

In the 1960s and 1970s both the Roman Catholics and the Anglican communion turned away from observing the pre-Lenten season in order to emphasize the Epiphany. This shift in emphasis is certainly reflected in the Revised Common Lectionary readings, if we bear in mind that the Greek word ἐπιφάνεια (epiphaneia) means ‘manifestation’ or ‘appearing’. Just as Epiphanytide begins with the first manifestation of the Christ Child to the wise men, so it ends with the first appearance of Jesus in something of the Light from which he came before his birth and to which he has arisen.

What if, however else we observe Lent, we make a point of humbly sharing “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6)?

For March 2, 2014: Last Epiphany, Year A

The Reading                                                                  Exodus 24:12-18

Moses is called to Mount Sinai to receive from God the Law by which Israel is to live. We have a vivid description of Mount Sinai shrouded in cloud, with the glory of God appearing like a fire on the mountain. Who could fail to be transformed by such a vision?

The Response                                                  Psalm 2

Psalm 2 may have been written for the dedication or rededication of a king of Israel: announcing a ruler as son of God was common in the Middle East, as is depicting one’s national god as more powerful than the gods of other nations. Might it be that God’s scorn is reserved for those who believe that they are in charge?

The Epistle                                                                        2 Peter 1:16-21

Peter of Galilee went up a mountain on a hike with friends—and saw his teacher revealed as God’s own Son. The second letter of Peter, almost certainly composed in Peter’s name rather than by the apostle himself, retells the story to confirm that it is no myth but rather a lamp leading us to the Light.

The Gospel                                                                       Matthew 17:1-9

The gospel tells the story to which the day’s epistle alludes: Jesus is revealed as the Son of God by being both transformed and acclaimed—but only for a little while, and he hushes it up.



An epiphany is a revelation, and the last Sunday of Epiphany brings us more than one.

The Old Testament epiphanies are grand, obvious, and enduring. Exodus reveals God in mountain-enveloping cloud and “devouring fire”—the sort of conflagration from which residents of tinder-dry Southern California flee in terror. Psalm 2 shows God easily angered and dictating terms to rulers who have presumed to challenge either the rule of God or the rule of God’s representative.

The New Testament epiphany, retold in 1 Peter, shares some features with the Old Testament epiphanies: as in the psalm, Jesus is recognized as God’s own son; as in Exodus, Moses is present, though here it is not Moses but Jesus whose appearance is transformed; as in both Exodus and the psalm, God’s people are awestruck to the point of terror. But where Moses the prophet took advantage of that terror in ruling God’s people, Jesus doesn’t. To quote the Christmas carol, “mild he lays his glory by” to be born to and among us; he orders the disciples not to make a big issue of who he is and what he does; and he keeps laying his glory and pride aside as he deals with nearly all degrees and conditions of people, from those terrified, sick, or outcast up through the most powerful religious and political figures in Palestine. This is a far cry from announcing whose sin has invoked this plague or that natural disaster or demanding the legal right to refuse service.

So what if truly following God means not flaunting God?

For Feb. 10, 2013: the Last Sunday in Epiphany, Year C

The Reading            Exodus 34:29-35

Exodus tells of an angry Moses breaking the original tablets of the Ten Commandments on finding that, in his absence, Israel had taken to worshiping an idol. In today’s reading, Moses returns from God with a new set of tablets—and the glory of God, shining in his face, terrifies everyone.

The Response            Psalm 99

The Epistle            2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

In first-century Corinth, Paul was under attack both for his ministry and for the gospel he preached. To defend his acts, today he contrasts the old covenant, under which even Moses could not stay transformed permanently, with the new covenant in which, through Christ, we all are free to know God and to be known as we are without shame or fear.

The Gospel            Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]


Further thoughts

On the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent, the readings all center on the idea of transformation. The lesson of the reading from Exodus is that an encounter with the living God changes a person visibly; the point of 2 Corinthians is surely that living into the will of God day by day has as its proper result the same sort of change.

Then there are Peter and John and James, among the disciples who have been with Jesus day by day—and who, on the mountain as Jesus prays, are shocked out of their sleep-deprived minds when he not only begins to shine like Moses but is visited by Moses and Elijah into the bargain. It is easy to shake our heads at them, especially as Luke continues to tell about the demon that the disciples failed to cast out of the boy. It is easy to wonder how these benighted souls could have failed to heed the signs, what with all that exposure.

The fact is, of course, that we have the benefit of two thousand more years of scripture, two thousand years more years of hindsight, two thousand more years in which to explore appearances of God and our responses to them.

But are we any more observant about God, or any more changed by our encounters with God, than they?

When I ask that question about myself, I find that I don’t have a good answer. That’s disturbing—and, as we move into the season of Lent, I rather suspect it ought to be.

For Feb. 19, 2012: the last Sunday in Epiphany, Year B

2 Kings 2:1-12
Today’s reading looks back to the day that Elisha inherits the mantle of his adoptive father, the great prophet Elijah. Elisha requests a double share of Elijah’s spirit not out of greed but because the other prophets would know that was the true heir’s proper share. Elisha certainly needs it: serving as God’s voice to the kings of Israel and Judah, when it is likelier than not that they turn their backs on God, is challenging.
THE EPISTLE 2 Corinthians 4:3-6
In the second letter to the Corinthians, Paul confronts a difficult question: why do some people not accept the gospel? His answer here is that they are being kept in the dark by someone powerful who is not our God, for our God is in the business of giving light.

Further thoughts
A common thread in today’s three readings is the question of who is God’s heir, and how we know.
In 2 Kings, Elijah is being taken up to God without dying first, and he is leaving behind Elisha, who was no prophet until Elijah called him away from the plow. It would seem that at least some of the existing prophets are skeptical about Elisha’s qualifications for prophethood: this would explain their insistence on making Elijah’s passing their business. It is not for them to decide, however, nor even for Elijah to determine. But it pleases God to answer the question in grand style: Elisha receives Elijah’s mantle and the heir’s double portion of Elijah’s spirit, not to mention the vision of fire that has him gabbling like a little boy in sheer exaltation. And then he takes up Elijah’s mantle and sets about the work that is his inheritance.
Paul also has to deal with a divided religious community each part of which looks askance at the claims to salvation advanced by the other. The verses that precede this reading make it clear that Paul is speaking less of unbelievers outside the church altogether than of unbelievers who are (or claim to be) in it, who remain deeply suspicious of claims to salvation that fail to follow their preferred path. These unbelievers, Paul says, are blinded to the gospel. “The god of this world” could be Satan, of course, but it could also be a human perception that makes God too pettily human and too easily comprehended by human minds and in human words. His point, however, is that it is God’s pleasure to offer light and adoption to for both Jew and Greek—which is to say, to everyone—along with the duty and honor of becoming a slave to all for Jesus’ sake.
Finally, there is today’s gospel. Jesus’ preaching and wonder-working have gained him a reputation as a prophet, though even Peter and Andrew doubtless still see him primarily as the carpenter’s son. Then, on the mountain, they see Jesus transfigured in light beyond light and visited by the two great figures of Jewish history, topped off by the divine announcement that Jesus is God’s very own beloved son. Peter blurts out an offer to that, on the face of it, sounds inane and overwhelmed. Peter is onto something, though: on some level he senses that this astonishing sonship extends through Jesus to the rest of us—and so, for all of us, does the work of God that goes with it.

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