Two transfiguration stories--one from the Old Testament, one from the New. Moses and Jesus. Two huge Biblical figures.
Let’s take Moses first. He’s a pretty complex guy. He starts out (if you will forgive me) as a basket case–and with all the struggles he has, it’s surprising he doesn’t end up as a basket case. He has to confront and threaten and argue with Pharaoh again and again; he’s saddled with the recalcitrant, whiny Hebrews in their 40-year trek across the desert.
His transfiguration story starts about three months into that desert trip. The Israelites reach the Desert of Sinai and pitch their camp facing Mt. Sinai. Moses then goes up the mountain toward God. You may recall that the Hebrews worshiped on high places whenever possible. God has called to him directly, instructing him to tell the people that if they keep his covenant, they will be his people. They agree. And if things had been left at that, all would have been well. But the plot gets complicated.
Yahweh tells Moses that He – that God himself – will come down to Mt. Sinai. So the people (well, the men) spend time getting ready, washing their clothes, purifying themselves. The big thing is that the people are not to touch the mountain, not even the edge of it. Not with a foot. Not even with a finger. Not with a toe. Anyone who does so is to be immediately put to death, using some kind of method that will put executioner and transgressor at least an arm’s length from one another. Stoning will work. Bows and arrows will work. Directly touching someone who had come that close to God would be fatal.
So, God descends. The Exodus story describes it with smoke and flames and rumbling and roaring. Someplace in all this violence Moses goes up into the mountain (a second time up the mountain) (ooo – into an erupting volcano??!!) and receives the Ten Commandments and many other laws which he takes to his people, apparently just orally, and they agree to obey the covenant.
I hope Moses isn’t too tired, because now he has to go back up the mountain with his brother Aaron and 72 other elders of Israel to carry news once again that they agree to obey. The entourage bows down at a distance; only Moses actually approaches Yahweh. Moses writes down the laws this time, an altar is built, a sacrifice is made, and blood from the sacrifice is sprinkled on the people to seal the covenant.
At another point, Moses is invited to go into the temple, (whew! Not another mountain climb) into the Holy of Holies. On their desert trek, the Hebrews have the tabernacle -- a portable shrine that they set up. The sons of Levi, the priestly tribe, have four wagons for hauling the tons of silver, bronze, and fabrics and paraphernalia so that when they stop for any length of time, they can create a holy place. They fence in an area with rods and poles set in bronze bases and hung with linen curtains.
Then there’s the shrine itself. It’s 45’ by 15.’ The walls are made of gilded wooden frames set in bases of silver, held together by gilded rods and hung with curtains. Can you imagine struggling through the desert with all that stuff? There are curtains and hangings made of ram and goat skins, goat hair, and decorated linen. Priests can enter the larger front room with its colorful hangings and golden furniture, but not the Holy of Holies, a chamber hidden behind a veil. There stands the Ark of the Covenant in an isolation that can be broken open only once each year and then only by the high priest.
Moses is told there, in the Holy of Holies, to go back up on the mountain to receive stone tablets on which the laws are written. Poor Moses. Back up the mountain, which is covered by a cloud – sort of like driving over Cosi hill when it’s really foggy. The glory of Yahweh (that’s the cloud) rests on Mt. Sinai for six days. On day seven Yahweh calls Moses to enter that cloud, where he stays for forty nights, which, translated, means a heck of a long time.
Meanwhile, back at the camp, the Hebrews give up on Moses and on God. After all, they have been waiting for a heck of a long time. They build for themselves a golden calf to worship. So much for “thou shalt have no other God but me.” So much for “thou shalt not worship any graven image.”
Finally Moses comes back -- hauling the stone tablets with the law chiseled on them. And he sees the golden calf. He gets so angry that he throws the tablets on the ground with such force that they break. God knows that if I had gone to all the trouble Moses did for those people, and that if they had apostacized themselves and begun worshiping a golden calf, I just might have had a temper tantrum too, and thrown whatever was handy.
Contracts, covenants, agreements were “carved in stone.” They were traditionally written on stone tablets, paper not being available in many stationery stores in those days, and the way to break a contract was to do just what Moses does. He throws it down. It breaks. Funny, isn’t it?
Today we still break contracts, but since they are now written on paper, why don’t we say we tear a contract, or burn a contract, or shred a contract? But we stick with Moses to this day and break them.
And bless his heart, Moses doesn’t give up. He tells his people – you have really sinned. Big time. But I’ll go talk to God and see if he’ll forgive you. So Moses goes back up to God, who agrees to punish only those who sinned outright, and ultimately agrees to stay with the Hebrews as they continue their journey to the promised land.
Moses has been through a lot by the time he descends from Mt. Sinai only to be confronted by the golden calf. Maybe he needs reassurance, because in his next encounter with God he asks to be shown God’s glory. “You can’t see my face and survive,” says God. “But here’s what I’ll do for you. Up on the mountain I’ll hide you in a crevice, a crack, in a rock. I’ll pass right by you, but in passing I’ll shield you with my hand so that you can’t see me. Once I’ve passed, I ‘ll allow you to glimpse my back. And, by the way, bring some stone tablets with you. I’ll rewrite the covenant.”
In today’s lesson when Moses comes down the mountain with the second set of tablets, his face is shining. He has been in the presence of God who has spoken with him directly and allowed him to witness a bit of his glory. Moses has been transfigured.
Etymology lesson here: trans/figure/ation. The figure means face. In fact, the French word for face is figure. Moses’ face is changed. Trans-figured.
Remember earlier in this story when the men are not allowed to touch even the edge of the mountain where God will reveal himself? Remember that any transgressor who touches even the edge of the mountain must be killed. Moses obviously has walked on that mountain and seen God’s glory. And he’s OK. He shares with the people what God has said, and then veils his face, either to protect the people from God’s glory, or maybe just to allay their fears. After that, he takes off the veil only when he goes inside the shrine to converse with God. When he comes out, he shares God’s message, and then again puts on the veil.
The Impression all of that leaves with me is that to the Israelites, God is powerful and much to be feared. Not just feared as in the sense of feeling awe, but feared in the sense that an encounter with God would be literally fatal.
So what impression do we come away with from the transfiguration experience in today’s Gospel? Luke places Jesus, too, on a mountaintop. He writes specific details to lend credence to the story. It’s not just some vague narrative. It’s set at a particular place and time – eight days after Peter acknowledges Jesus as the Christ of God. Just as the Israelites were on a journey to the promised land, so Jesus is on a journey to Calvary and to the Resurrection. There is an overshadowing cloud. There is terror. Just as Moses’ face had shone, so Jesus’ face shines. In fact, even his garments become radiantly white. Furthermore. Moses is actually there! And Peter and his companions “see God’s glory.” Do you remember what happens when Moses wants to see God’s glory? Well, no hiding in a crevice this time. Even though they don’t ask to see it, God’s glory is shown to Peter, James and John.
They truly get to see the glory of God shining in the transfiguration of Jesus. Suddenly it’s not the mere man Jesus they have been traveling with. He has become more. He’s the God whose Son he is. The apostles behold him. And they do not die. And that’s the point. They do not die.
Moses keeps his face most of the time veiled because even the reflected glory of God would have been fatal. With Jesus, the apostles behold him and do not die. Life goes on.
What we have here is the transfiguration of the relationship between God and us. Or rather of the development of the relationship between God and us.
What appears to me as I look at Moses being the go-between for the Israelites and God and then look at the Transfiguration with Jesus and Peter and James and John is that we are, indeed, children of a living God, a God who makes decisions and whose relationship with his people changes. It develops. God has allowed the relationship to get closer, changing slowly, as mankind becomes ready for it.
It’s kind of like an architectural change within the church. Example? Look at the position of the altar. It used to be smack dab back against the wall.
With the altar brought forward, we might envision being on a beach, gathered around a bonfire, sharing a meal of fish and bread. There’s a feeling of family.
The other side of the coin, with the altar up against the wall as it used to be, and the priest standing, arms upraised, back to the congregation, gives us the feel of sitting maybe formally, stiffly, at a polished dining room table in starched, uncomfortable clothing being served by supercilious liveried servants.
The architectural difference is like an outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible grace of God allowing his glory to be seen by the common man. Here is the altar of God, right here.
At the crucifixion, the veil of the temple is ripped in two, from the top. Torn away from God’s side, if you will. The veil that had walled off the Holy of Holies in the temple is breached. God is no longer accessible just to the chief priest just once a year. God is no longer hidden behind the veil. Jesus comes to us. Jesus, as God, is revealed to Peter, James and John and to us. Jesus, as God, is accessible to us, in all his glory, now and forever. Amen