Friday, August 04, 2017

The Feast of the Transfiguration

This Sunday we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration!  This Feast last fell on a Sunday in 2006, and won’t fall on a Sunday again until 2023.

In the first three or “synoptic” Gospels, the Transfiguration marks a pivotal point in the ministry of Jesus, the point at which he begins his “death march” to Jerusalem to suffer his Passion.  It is “the beginning of the end.”  In these three Gospels, too, the Baptism and Transfiguration are paired.  At these two events, the voice of the Father is heard from heaven, “This is my beloved son.”  In this way, the Baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and the Transfiguration the end of it, at least in the sense that, from the Transfiguration on, the focus shifts to Jesus’ imminent atoning death. 

1. Our First Reading is Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14:

As I watched:

Thrones were set up
and the Ancient One took his throne.
His clothing was bright as snow,
and the hair on his head as white as wool;
his throne was flames of fire,
with wheels of burning fire.
A surging stream of fire
flowed out from where he sat;
Thousands upon thousands were ministering to him,
and myriads upon myriads attended him.
The court was convened and the books were opened.

As the visions during the night continued, I saw:

One like a Son of man coming,
on the clouds of heaven;
When he reached the Ancient One
and was presented before him,
The one like a Son of man received dominion, glory, and kingship;
all peoples, nations, and languages serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not be taken away,
his kingship shall not be destroyed.

This is an extremely important prophetic passage in the history of salvation and the development of Jewish and Christian theology.  There are two divine persons portrayed in this passage.  Most obviously, the “Ancient One” or more traditionally, the “Ancient of Days,”  is clearly divine.  He is God, seated on his heavenly throne.  The surging river emanating from his throne is a reflection of a common ancient motif that God’s throne sat in the original temple-sanctuary located on the top of the primordial mountain, the first mountain whose peak broke the waters that covered the primitive earth.  In the Hebrew tradition, this mountain was called “Eden,” and at the top of it was a garden sanctuary for the Divine Presence, and from it flowed a river which watered the whole earth (Gen 2:10).  However, in Daniel’s vision, the river flowing from the Divine Presence is fire: this may symbolize judgment before the throne of God.  In this case, the LORD has taken his throne not to dispense peace and life, but justice and vindication.
But there is another divine figure in this vision as well.  The one “like a son of man” comes “on the clouds of heaven.”  This was a divine prerogative.  In most ancient religions—Roman, Greek, Canaanite, Norse—the chief god of the pantheon road in a chariot composed of storm clouds, and hurled down lightning bolts to all who opposed him.  This describes Jupiter, Zeus, Ba’al, and Thor.  But here in Daniel 7, it is “one like a son of man” who comes “on the clouds,” like Ba’al or Zeus.  Thus, he, too, is God. 

Even some Jewish commentators recognize that we have in this passage two divine persons in the Godhead.  The rabbi and Bible scholar Daniel Boyarin made just this point in a famous (or notorious) essay in the Harvard Theological Review several years ago (“The Gospel of the Memra: Jewish Binitarianism and the Prologue to John,” HTR 94 (2001): 243-284). 

The “Son of Man” receives from the “Ancient of Days” kingship over the whole earth.  In Christian hindsight, we recognize this it the Father granting the Son lordship over heaven and earth.  This concept lies behind passages like Luke 22:30: “I covenant to you, as my father covenanted to me, a kingdom …”  Or Matt 28: 18: “All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me.  Go, therefore, and make disciples ….”

At the Transfiguration, we will see Jesus, who typically calls himself “the Son of Man,” transformed in appearance to look like the Ancient of Days, his Father.  This is visible testimony to the reality of his divine nature. 

P. Our Responsorial is Psalm 97:1-2, 5-6, 9:

R. The Lord is king, the Most High over all the earth.
The LORD is king; let the earth rejoice;
let the many islands be glad.
Clouds and darkness are round about him,
justice and judgment are the foundation of his throne.
R. The Lord is king, the Most High over all the earth.
The mountains melt like wax before the LORD,
before the LORD of all the earth.
The heavens proclaim his justice,
and all peoples see his glory.
R. The Lord is king, the Most High over all the earth.
Because you, O LORD, are the Most High over all the earth,
exalted far above all gods.
R. The Lord is king, the Most High over all the earth.

Psalm 97 is a beautiful psalm, part of a set of psalms consisting of Psalms 93-99 which share many common themes, the most obvious of which is divine kingship.  Nowhere else in the Psalter do we have a similar collection of Psalms which so consistently emphasize the idea that God is king.  In the flow of the Psalter, this is quite significant, because at the end of Book III of the Psalter, the kingship of David is destroyed (read Psalm 89:38-51).  This reflects the historical period aroung 587 BC, when the last of the Davidic kings was captured and Jerusalem destroyed.  With David’s kingship gone, what do God’s people do?  The answer of the Psalmist is to emphasize God’s kingship.  Even if the Davidic dynasty languishes because of the sinfulness of David’s heirs, nonetheless God always remains in control. 
We see in Psalm 97 the LORD God of Israel described in ways that the pagans used to describe their chief deities.  Thus, “clouds and darkness are round about him.”  This means, “it is not Ba’al or Zeus who controls the weather and wield the power that we see manifested in storms, but rather this prerogative belongs to the LORD, the God of Israel!”  In the Gospels, we see Jesus exercising the power of a chief deity when he calms the storm on the Sea of Galilee for example.  The winds were under the control of Zeus/Ba’al, the waves were under the control of Poseidon/Yam.  So when Jesus calms the wind and the waves, he demonstrates himself to be more powerful than Zeus (=Jupiter/Ba’al/Thor) and Poseidon (=Neptune/Yam/Aegir), arguably the two chief deities. Of course, these other deities do not really exist, except in the minds of the ancients.  But Jesus is truly the LORD God of Israel.

Jesus is God and King, so he is the subject of Psalm 97.  But Jesus is also the Son of David, who fulfills the promises of David that seemed to have failed at the end of Psalm 89.  In a strange way, the ancient psalmist was correct: having witnessed the failure of the Davidic kingship in Psalm 89, the ancient psalmist turns to meditate on divine kingship in Ps 93-99.  But it is, in the end, divine kingship that also saves Davidic kingship.  David’s royalty will only be upheld when one of his descendants is also God.

2. Our Second Reading is 2 Pt 1:16-19:

We did not follow cleverly devised myths
when we made known to you
the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,
but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.
For he received honor and glory from God the Father
when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory,
"This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven
while we were with him on the holy mountain.
Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable.
You will do well to be attentive to it,
as to a lamp shining in a dark place,
until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

Peter says in this passage, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths …”, but ironically, most modern Bible scholars believe 2 Peter itself is a cleverly devised myth, a “pseudepigraph” or false writing written by someone else and pawned off as being a letter from Peter.  For my part, I do not believe 2 Peter is pseudepigraphical.  It’s true that it is different in diction than 1 Peter, and that it shares material with the Epistle of Jude, but none of that proves Peter was not the author.  Famous ancient people regularly employed secretaries (amanuenses) to take dictation, and this would have certainly been the case for Peter, who was trained as a fisherman, not a scribe.  The secretary actually took the dictation had a strong influence over the literary style of the final product, and this could explain stylistic variation between literary works of the same famous ancient individual. 

In any event, Peter speaks to us in this passage and clearly calls us to ponder the Transfiguration, which he witnessed, and which he describes as part of a prophetic message which is a “lamp shining in a dark place.”

Our earthly journeys are all filled with darkness.  For some of us, and at some times, our journeys here below seem to be nothing but darkness.  In these times, the memories of the great miracles and triumphs of Our Lord and his saints serves as a consolation and encouragement.  That’s why the Church gives us so many feast days and saints days.  The Church was us to be frequently encouraged by calling to mind these happy acts of salvation that really did occur in human history.  These memories are lamps that light the darkness of earthly life, showing us the path of holiness and encouraging us on it. 

G. Our Gospel is Matthew 17:1-9:

Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother, John,
and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them;
his face shone like the sun
and his clothes became white as light.
And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them,
conversing with him.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
"Lord, it is good that we are here.
If you wish, I will make three tents here,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."
While he was still speaking, behold,
a bright cloud cast a shadow over them,
then from the cloud came a voice that said,
"This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;
listen to him."
When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate
and were very much afraid.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying,
"Rise, and do not be afraid."
And when the disciples raised their eyes,
they saw no one else but Jesus alone.

As they were coming down from the mountain,
Jesus charged them,
"Do not tell the vision to anyone
until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."

Much of the meaning of the imagery here is well-known, but to rehearse the obvious: Jesus leads the Three up a “high mountain,” which calls to mind Sinai, but especially the high mountain on which Ezekiel saw the new temple and dwelling place of God (Ezek 40:2).  Since Jesus’ body is the New Temple (John 2:21), there may be a connection here: Jesus leads his disciples onto the “high mountain” where they, like Ezekiel, see the glory of the new temple of Jesus’ body.  There is also the theme of Moses going up on Sinai to see the presence of God, taking with him the (high)-priestly trio of Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu (Exod 24:9).  Peter, James, and John are the new priestly trio. 

Jesus is transfigured to resemble, roughly, the Ancient of Days from Daniel 7.  The Son is conformed to the image of the Father. Moses and Elijah appear to speak to him.  Why Moses and Elijah?  On the one hand, Moses represents the Law, and Elijah represents the Prophets.  Together, “the Law and the Prophets” comprises the Jewish Scriptures that we now think of as the “Old Testament”.  So we have Jesus the New Testament conversing with the “Law and the Prophets,” that is, the Old Testament.  It is a beautiful image of the interrelationship of Scripture and also God’s plan of salvation.

On the other hand, both Moses and Elijah were reputed to have been assumed into heaven.  The Scriptures record Elijah taken up by a whirlwind.  Jewish tradition held that Moses’ body was taken up, a tradition reflected in Jude 9, where the archangel Michael appears to be struggling against Satan for possession of the body of Moses.  We have fragments of a Second Temple Jewish document called “The Assumption of Moses,” but not enough of it to provide a clear idea of how the Jewish tradition understood Moses’ assumption to have taken place.  In any event, Moses and Elijah were two men who were believed already to be physically present in heaven, and thus able to converse with Jesus.  Moses and Elijah are also both associated with a mountain (Sinai/Horeb) where God appeared to them in power and spoke to them in an audible voice.  Peter, James, and John likewise see God (in this case, Jesus) and hear the voice of the Father.

The “bright cloud” from which the voice comes calls to mind the way God appeared to Moses and the Israelites all throughout the Pentateuch.  God spoke to Moses from a cloud at Sinai.  God’s glory descended in a cloud to fill the Tabernacle.  God would speak from the cloud above the cherubim of the Ark.  God lead the people through the wilderness by a pillar of cloud.  The glory cloud of the LORD was also “bright,” because it would appear as fire by night (Num 9:16).

The voice from the cloud says, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.  Listen to him!”  This statement calls to mind three important figures from the Old Testament.  First, Isaac, who in Genesis 22 is called the “beloved son” of Abraham three times in the Septuagint (LXX) [translating Hebrew yahîd, “unique, singular, one-and-only”]. Second, David, whose name means “beloved one,” and who became the “son of God” by covenant (Psalm 89:20,26-27). Third, the famous “servant of the LORD” of Isaiah, of whom it is said: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (Isa 42:1). Jesus is the fulfillment of all three of these individuals: he is the new Isaac, come to give his life on the wood of sacrifice to enable blessing to come to the whole world (see Gen 22:16-18); he is the new David, come to restore David’s kingdom and covenant; he is the Anointed Servant, come to enact the messianic age that Isaiah foresaw.

The disciples fell prostrate at the voice, a usual response to the revelation of divinity.  Likewise, the worshipers at the Temple fell prostrate whenever the high priest would utter the Divine Name (YHWH) while pronouncing a blessing on the people. 

Jesus says to them, “Rise, be not afraid,” a message similar to that spoken in the Old Testament when a person was exposed to a theophany (e.g. Judg 6:22-23).

The disappearance of Moses and Elijah clearly puts the focus on Jesus alone.  Peter’s mistake was to understand Jesus as just another great prophet, like Moses and Elijah.  Thus, three tabernacles, one for each great prophet.  But Jesus is more than that, he is the divine Son of Man, king of the universe.  He is incomparable to Moses and Elijah.  On the other hand, he is both the New Moses (new lawgiver) and the New Elijah (new prophet of mighty deeds).

Jesus warns the apostles not to speak of what they saw until after the resurrection.  This is part of Jesus’ overall strategy to reveal his identity by indirection.  Were he to simply stand on the street corner and yell, “I’m God!” at the crowds, he would be taken for a crazy man.  Instead, in a method that is both more humble and more effective, he performs the deeds of God and speaks as God, slowly convincing the apostles that he is God in the flesh.  In this case, he becomes transfigured to appear like the Ancient of Days, as another sign and evidence of his divinity. 

The Transfiguration is the pivot point in all the Gospels that record it.  On the one hand, it ends the normal course of Jesus’ ministry, forming an inclusio with the Baptism, as the two events where the voice of the Father will proclaim Jesus as the “beloved son.”  On the other hand, the Transfiguration forms an inclusio with Calvary as bookends around the second part of Jesus’ life, the journey to the cross.  Actually, the Transfiguration has to be understood in comparison to the cross, and it is an anticipation of the cross.  At both mountains, Jesus is glorified.  At the Mount of Transfiguration (traditionally, Mt. Tabor in lower Galilee), he is glorified visibly; at Calvary, he is glorified to those who have the eyes of faith.  Seen correctly, the incredible display of humility and love in Christ’s self-sacrifice at Calvary is just as profound, and even greater, a display of divinity as the visible Transfiguration.  We see at Mt. Tabor the glory that is cloaked in mystery on Mt. Calvary.

--> The apostles were told not to tell anyone until “the Son of Man” had risen from the dead.  But now he has risen from the dead, and so we should tell everyone about the divinity of Christ, the good news that Jesus of Nazareth is God in the flesh, come down to prove his love for us.  We can now boldly proclaim what Peter, James, and John had to keep secret!  This is a motive for the new evangelization.


James O'Hara said...

Thank you Dr. Bergsma for putting together such a complete and thorough explanation of this week's readings. I am sure it takes a lot of time to put this together every week, but it is a great gift to those of us who desire a deeper understanding of the Scriptures.

God Bless!

habitofbeing said...

Always a superb Sunday morning read. Ever grateful.