St. Michael’s Church
11 February 2018
“And Jesus was transfigured before them,
his clothes becoming dazzling white.” (Mark 9)
Transfiguration, or more precisely, Jesus’ transfiguration: “A complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful state,” as the dictionary would have it. Jesus, on a mountain, with his closest disciples, changed before their eyes into a heavenly vision, with Moses and Elijah in attendance.
But what are we to make of it? Clearly the disciples themselves didn’t know, for they were terrified, and could only blubber rather incoherently about making three dwellings to preserve the moment, sort of the equivalent of posting a picture of it on Facebook I suppose.
Perhaps our best clue about the meaning of this event is its placement in the lectionary itself: we are reading it today, on the cusp of Lent, and it feels a bit like the future has caught up with us. That is to say, the appearance of the transfigured Jesus is quite similar to the appearances the resurrected Jesus will make after Easter: an ethereal atmosphere, terrified disciples, reassuring words.
So perhaps the transfiguration is meant to remind us, once we get into the dark days of Lent and Holy Week, that this is the Jesus who will be arrested, tried, and executed. The one whose life was shown to contain within it the very presence of God, which on the mount momentarily burst out and overtook his human nature as a foretaste of what was to come.
That much seems fairly clear. There is a connection between the mount of the transfiguration, and the mount of Calvary: it is one and the same Jesus, whose divinity is shown today in dazzling white, but whose divinity will be shown then in emptiness and sacrifice.
And yet it feels as if there is another layer of meaning here that we also need to find, but which is harder to put our finger on. Pondering that question, I came across this week the tributes that were paid to Vincent Scully, a legendary professor of architectural history at Yale who recently died. He opened the eyes of generations of students to the beauty and grandeur of the built environment, and was famous for the passion and imagination he brought to reading works of architecture.
In a book he wrote on the pueblos of New Mexico, for instance, he described the Acoma mesa as the “acropolis” of North America, likening the church of St. Esteban to the Parthenon that presides over Athens. Or bemoaning the demise of McKim Mead and White’s elegant beaux-arts Pennsylvania Station masterpiece in mid-town Manhattan, which was razed in the 1960s to make way for the awful Madison Square Garden with its subterranean train station, Scully said, “[Before] one entered the city like a god. [Now] one scuttles in like a rat.”
In any case, one of Scully’s best known pronouncements was that architecture must be “conservative, experimental, and ethical.” Conservative, not in the sense of illiberal, but in the sense of preserving something of great value. Experimental in the sense that it must always innovate and recreate itself. And ethical in the sense that it must recognize that live up to the fact that buildings are ultimately about creating communities in which people can live and flourish, and not just a monument to the ego of the architect.
Those three words—conservative, experimental, and ethical—struck me as being related in some way to this deeper meaning of transfiguration that we are looking for. And they do so in this sense: who Jesus is has everything to do with God’s vision for human beings. In his life, his teaching, his self-offering, he is constantly trying to get us to have a larger and more generous understanding of who we are meant to be.
And in the transfiguration, those three elements are each powerfully present: the conservative, experimental, and ethical. The conservative in that the presence of Moses and Elijah with Jesus clearly evokes that the received expectations of individual responsibility and social justice represented by the law and the prophets are not supplanted by Jesus, but incorporated into what he taught.
The experimental in that Jesus pushes beyond the strict requirements of the law, to a new interpretation of it as the law of love. As he begins time and again, “You have heard that it was said, … but I say to you love your enemy, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
And the ethical in that the law of love which Jesus taught is always focused on the building of a peaceable community where everyone has a place, which Jesus calls nothing less than the Kingdom of God.
The transfiguration, in other words, not just a momentary affirmation of the divine nature of Jesus’ mission, but also a permanent vision of the underlying worth and dignity of human nature as well, as God intended it to be in the creation. In this Black History Month, we are mindful of the dream of a nation untainted by the scourge of bigotry and racism. But we would do well to remember that in the first instance, that is God’s dream, and one which we only inherit. Perhaps it would not be too strong to say, therefore, that Jesus’ transfiguration is an invitation for us to be transfigured into that dream as well: to make room for the best that is within us to overtake and overshadow our more sinful side. To nourish our best instincts toward generosity, creativity, and compassion so that they simply crowd out our worst impulses toward selfishness, banality, and greed.
Come to think of it, isn’t there one of our national patriotic songs that alludes to exactly this idea that by living into Christ’s holiness, we are made holy? What are those words …
In the beauty of the lilies
Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
Could it be, that this Lent which is almost upon us, could be a time for us to renew our commitment to God’s vision for who we are meant to be, and to commit ourselves to praying and working toward our mutual transfiguration? To focus on a vision of ourselves individually, and of what we hold in common in our communities, in which our desire for the good, the just, and the compassionate overtakes and outshines our baser tendencies toward the vulgar, the deceitful, and the exclusionary? Thank God it’s almost Lent, we need it so much! And not a moment too early! Amen.