Last revised: February 27, 2020
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THE TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD — YEAR A
RCL: Exodus 24:12-18; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
RoCa: Observe Transfiguration on the 2nd Sunday in Lent
Opening Remarks: Transfiguration as Glimpsing the New Human Being
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
“Son of Man.” In light of René Girard’s Mimetic Theory, I’m inclined to translate this phrase as the “New Human Being.” In Paul’s rendering, Jesus is a “Second Adam.” Does Son of Man imply Second Adam? A new generation of Human Being? The most basic background for “Son of Man” is considered to be Daniel 7. In contrast to the beastly empires who have victimized God’s people for centuries, “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven” (Dan. 7:13).
The light of Girard’s MT for me is precisely in understanding with new clarity the power of becoming human in a new Way through Jesus the Messiah. Before the cross and resurrection, the disciples could only glimpse a foresight of this new humanity. Post-resurrection we now have the possibility of having our humanity transfigured as a new Way to live. At the center of this new Way to live is taking seriously the Sermon on the Mount that we’ve been hearing in recent weeks — Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s “go-to” text in writing his book Discipleship, where he begins by confronting “cheap grace” with “costly grace.”
During Transfiguration week in 2014, there was a conversation on our ELCA Clergy Facebook page about avoiding despair in the face of the current church decline. It can be very discouraging to be a pastor at such a time in history. One might respond that we have a transfiguration faith and message, and the church is in decline because we’ve gotten off-message. The way to avoiding despair is to once again see the Transfiguration. We need to comprehend that God in Jesus Christ is transfiguring us as a species, giving us the Way of being human through the Second Adam, the Son of Man, the New Human Being. We have a Gospel of Transformation which is transfiguring us into more fully being who God created us to be.
My personal response to times of discouragement is that the anthropology of René Girard has provided the key for reviving my “Transfiguration faith.” I consider it the biggest breakthrough since the New Testament in helping to understand the New Human Being that Christ came to inaugurate. Not only do I experience myself as being transfigured but the entire way in which I see reality has become transfigured. I know God’s salvation to be a power of transformation in the world.
The Girardian book to feature on Transfiguration Sunday is Brian Robinette‘s Grammars of Resurrection: A Christian Theology of Presence and Absence. I count over forty uses of the word group transfig*, instances in every chapter but one (ch. 5). Here is one of those instances:
Jesus’ resurrection is not just one event among other events in history. It is not simply reducible to history. If it were, then we would not be talking about “resurrection,” but “resuscitation.” But neither is the resurrection a-historical or a-temporal, something like the instant translation of Jesus’ incorporeal identity into eternity, beyond all time and space. Resurrection means that the total personal reality of Jesus of Nazareth is transformed into the fullness of eschatological life. Eschatology is not the negation of space-time, but its fullness, its confluence and transfiguration. The specification of the “body,” which as Cullmann points out defined the early Christian view of time in terms of “already” and “not-yet,” means something much more than the inert, physical “thing” that the instrumentalist and mechanistic anthropologies of our day presuppose. Resurrection language precisely means that something happened to the whole body-person of Jesus of Nazareth, that the concretely lived history of this man, which can only be thought of in terms of narrative identity (not metaphysical essence), has been eschatologically validated, transformed, and fulfilled. Hence, the resurrection is not “a-historical” but “more-than-historical,” where the “more-than” is inclusive of but not reducible to history. (pp. 40-41)
1. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, pp. 143-152, gives some solid Girardian background on this portion of Exodus, especially the section “Moses and the Commandments.”
2. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred, ch. 4, “The Covenant and Sacrifice,” especially pp. 114-116. Williams suggests that the Covenant, God’s word, is set up as a tension to a religion of sacrifice in this chapter, a tension that will gradually turn into open conflict through the words of the prophets who condemn sacrifice and lift up the covenant.
3. Gil Bailie, “Famished Craving” audio tape series, tape #3, does a wonderful study on a prominent theme in this lection: “glory” (chabod in Hebrew). Here are my notes:
***** Notes on Gil Bailie’s “Famished Craving,” tape #3 *****
John 5, Ichabod, and Jeremiah — John 5:41-44: “I do not accept glory from human beings. But I know that you do not have the love of God in you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God?”
To look to each other for glory, particularly for us at the end of the 20th century, is a secular version parallel to Paul’s objection to the Pharisaical efforts to achieve justification by perfect adherence to the law. Justification is not something earned but comes as a gift with faith. Justification, on the psychological level, is a sort of self-confidence. Actually, to say “self-confidence” is a contradiction. Real confidence comes through faith.
The word “glory” in Greek is doxa, which is a bit weak in its translation of the Hebrew, chabod. Doxa has the connotation of “opinion,” “assessment.” Chabod, on the other hand, means “weight,” “substance,” real substance. “Glory,” in the Hebrew, has the connotation of being the source of substance. This recalls Henri de Lubac’s “waning of ontological density” and Gabriel Marcel’s “loss of ontological moorings.”
Often the “glory of Yahweh” appears in the OT with some very untoward things happening to people. It has a connection with sacred violence. “Glory” undergoes a transformation in the history of God’s people as the true God is revealed to them. Similarly, sacrifice. It begins with a literal meaning involving the death of a victim. Under the power of the revelation, it develops into the idea of self-sacrifice. There are a lot of terms like that, which we have to see in terms of the work of the Paraclete to really appreciate them. We can get off track by trying to read a primitive term through Christian eyes, like trying to understand the old form of sacrifice under the Christian notion of self-sacrifice. Or the other way around: we can try to bring a primitive notion of blood sacrifice to bear upon later Christian ideas. Are many atonement theories a reading of Christ’s self-sacrifice with old categories of blood sacrifice?
Glory is one of those terms that undergoes a transformation: from the glory of the old primitive sacred, to the notion of glory in John’s gospel, the glory that comes from the one true God. To deconstruct and dismantle the former, without discovering the sanctifying power of the latter, is to be thrown into an anthropological and religious crisis, a version of which is engulfing the modern world. Stated anthropologically, Christianity’s great historical and religious task, one that has fallen almost solely on its shoulders, is to bring about a form of desacralization that is thoroughly religious in nature.
Ichabod. Eli dies and his sons are killed as the ark of the covenant is captured by the Philistines. Eli’s daughter-in-law (wife of Phenias) gives birth: “She named the child Ichabod, meaning, ‘The glory has departed from Israel,’ because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband.” (1 Samuel 4:21) Ichabod means: “where has the glory gone?” The experience of secular desacralization is the experience of Ichabod. Suddenly, everything is falling apart. In a certain sense, we’re all Ichabods. If chabod means weight, substance, gravitas, then Ichabod means weightlessness. If we read this ontologically, spiritually, we begin to see the modern problem, the problem of Ichabod.
The Bible gives us a desacralization that is not secular (nor just simply the dwindling away of the sacred as with Eli and his sons) but is religious in nature. In the OT we especially see it in the prophets and the psalms. Take Jeremiah, for example. In one his diatribes, ‘So your marching into the temple chanting, “Nothing can ever happen to us, because we have the temple,” it means nothing.’ The crisis in the time of Ichabod was the loss of the ark of the covenant. Jeremiah tells his people that God will write the covenant on their hearts, so that they no longer need to worry about such pieces of furniture. The substance, the glory, is taking place inside because of one’s relationship with the true God.
***** End of Bailie Notes *****
2 Peter 1:16-21
1. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 126-127:
If we consider it in this light, it doesn’t seem surprising that there should have been a development among the members of the apostolic group in the period after the resurrection. If we take the notion of the ‘end’ understood as vengeance, just as it is found in 1 Thessalonians, it is a vengeful end which depends exactly on there being insiders and outsiders, so that the afflicted are vindicated, and the persecutors punished. But in the degree to which the perception of God changes, becoming, as we have seen, shorn of violence, two realities are altered simultaneously: the separation between goodies and baddies, insiders and outsiders, enters into a process of continuous collapse and subversion, and at the same time the ‘end’ cannot remain as a vengeance if there is no longer any clarity about who’s an insider and who an outsider, and under these circumstances the notion of the end itself changes towards what we see in 2 Peter: it becomes a principle of revelation of what had really been going on during the time that has been left for the changing of hearts.
2. For a good introduction to mythology from the perspective of mimetic theory (the topic raised below in the reflections), see the online article by René Girard, “Are the Gospels Mythical?” For an introductory book, Richard Golsan‘s book, René Girard and Myth: An Introduction, is perhaps the most focused on the subject of myth. Girard’s book that is most focused on explaining myth vs. Gospel is The Scapegoat.
3. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2017, “From Crafty Myths to Real Truth.”
Reflections and Questions
1. “For 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.” This sentence almost becomes an understatement in light of Girard’s anthropology. Myth (from the Greek mys, literally a covering over of the eyes and ears) closes our eyes to the fate of the sacrificial victim. The coming of the Lord Jesus Christ opens our eyes to all that, initiating a religion based on eyewitnesses to the victimization rather than a closing of the eyes to it.
In my 2002 sermon on this text, I began with the Hindu myth of creation and its social ordering of Indian society into the caste system as an example of how “cleverly devised myths” are behind oppressive uses of human power. I moved through the Genesis 1 myth of creation, already a big improvement in terms of cleaning up the violence, to show how its ordering of the week was behind the control over the Sabbath that Jesus challenged throughout his ministry. I use this as an example to ask about the “orders of creation” still used today by heterosexual people against gay and lesbian neighbors. Is male and female truly an order of creation? Or, in our hands, is it another order violently imposed by the majority over the minority? Link to the sermon “Following Jesus Means Learning Not to ‘Follow Cleverly Devised Myths.'” (For more on an application of mimetic theory to issues involving gays and the church, see “My Core Convictions,” Part IV.4.4.)
This sermon takes on the hot issues facing many of our churches involving the place of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in the church. Do we bless their relationships? Do we ordain openly gay candidates who are in a covenant relationship with a partner? My position of answering in the affirmative to both questions comes through. It is at least partially based on the insights of mimetic theory into mythology.
2. In my own church body, the ELCA, they released in January 2005 the “Report and Recommendations from the Task Force for Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Studies on Sexuality.” The lynchpin (pun intended) of arguments against gay marriage is the “orders of creation” theology, which I take on in the sermon as part of mythology. While the ELCA Task Force Report outlines many points of disagreement, the following is apparently a point of agreement:
Thus, we affirm the biblical teaching of Gods gift of marriage as “a lifelong covenant of faithfulness between a man and a woman.” (A Message on Sexuality: Some Common Convictions, 1996) The heterosexual order of creation was given for our good then and now. (p. 12)
I agree with the view of God as affirming healthy, covenantal heterosexual marriage, but not in exclusion of healthy, covenantal homosexual marriage, especially if its based on a theology of the “heterosexual order of creation.”
3. In early 2005 I was also embarking on an important journey of reading for the first time fellow Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s Ethics. Bonhoeffer writes, “In pseudo-Lutheranism the autonomy of the orders of this world is proclaimed against the law of Christ” (p. 56). In an important footnote in the new edition (vol. six of the sixteen volume project of publishing Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works), the editors relate how Lutheran theologians such as Werner Elert and Paul Althaus prepared and signed a response to the Barmen Declaration (May 31, 1934), called the Anspach Memorandum (June 11, 1934), which used orders of creation to basically support Nazi racism. Bonhoeffer goes on in his Ethics to lay out a concept of God’s “mandates,” which tries to recover some sense of order in creation but wholly centered in Christology.
But shouldn’t the history of using “orders of creation” theology more than give us pause in again using them against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ? In addition to all manners of racism and ethnocentrism, haven’t “orders of creation” theologies also been used against women and people who are differently abled? Aren’t they even behind oppression of left-handers, for heaven’s sake?! And, thus, isn’t it about time that we exam this theology more closely instead of so readily “affirming” it? Mimetic theory provides us with a Christ-centered anthropology that helps us to evaluate such theologies in terms of mythology vs. the Gospel.
4. “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” The opening of our eyes only comes by the power of the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, who enables us to finally see the truth of our victimizing. Link to a page on the Paraclete.
1. I might try preaching on the theme of glory. On the holy mountain of transfiguration you have three figures — Moses, Elijah, and Jesus — in the biblical tradition’s transformation of glory. The Bailie excerpt (above) gives an excellent beginning on parsing this transition. For a very similar development from the point of view of Elijah, I give you James Alison‘s reflections on the Elijah saga from his paper “Theology amidst the stones and dust,” now ch. 2 in Faith Beyond Resentment:
***** James Alison Excerpt ****
Let us look closely, first of all, at the prophet Elijah. The altars of Yahweh are in ruins, Ahab’s regime favors the followers of Baal. Elijah, the champion of Yahwism, undertakes to wage a valiant war against the prophets of Baal, organizing a competition to see which god can burn a sacrificed bull with fire from heaven. As the prayers and litanies of the prophets of Baal pile up, Elijah mocks them, suggesting, among other things, that perhaps Baal can’t put in an appearance owing to being busy with a bowel movement. When it is Elijah’s turn to offer his sacrifice, first he rebuilds the altar of Yahweh, then soaks his bull completely, and boom!, the lightening strikes. All present fall to the ground, crying: “The Lord is the true God.” Elijah immediately takes advantage of this unanimity to point his finger at the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, ordering that they be seized and killed. His order is at once obeyed.After this triumph, feeling somewhat depressed, Elijah goes off to the desert, where he desires death. God gives him food necessary for survival, but not even that pleases him much, and an angel has to tell him to eat up, and then to go for a forty day and forty night hike to Mount Horeb, like Moses to whom God had spoken at the same place. Once there Elijah hides in a cave, where God has to come and find the disillusioned prophet. God asks him what he’s doing there, and he replies: “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” (1 Kings 19:10) God orders him to come out of the cave and to stand before the Lord, who announces that he is going to pass by. Well, you know the story: first comes a mighty wind which rends the mountains and breaks the rocks in pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind. Then comes an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, and then comes a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there comes a still small voice. At this Elijah goes and stands at the entrance to the cave, and God speaks to him, asking what he’s doing there, and once again, Elijah repeats: “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” (1 Kings 19:14) Then, in an extraordinary anticlimax, God tells him to go to Damascus to anoint Jehu king, and to pick Elisha as his successor, adding that God will reserve for himself seven thousand men who haven’t bent the knee before Baal. Elijah goes off and obeys. From then on his interventions are few until he’s whisked off to heaven and Elisha’s ministry begins.
What I’d like to point out about this story is this: what seems to be a story of the triumph of Yahwism is in fact presented as the story of the un-deceiving of Elijah. Elijah before his un-deceiving was a champion fighter without problems of self-esteem or self-confidence. God was a god like Baal, but bigger and tougher, and Elijah was his spokesman, the one who pointed out his victims. The contest of Mount Carmel was a splendid battle between rival shamans or witch-doctors. After the bloody interlude, which he had won, Elijah sinks into a depression, and doubts the value of all that: “Enough, O Lord, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers.” (1 Kings 19:4) The sacred author presents us with something rather remarkable: not a series of praises for the Yahwist champion, but rather the story of how Elijah learnt not to identify God with all those special effects which he had known how to manipulate to such violent effect. All the commotion around Mount Horeb is presented as something rather like a de-construction of the sacred scenario associated with Moses, for the Lord was present in the still small voice, rather than in something of more imposing majesty. Furthermore, rather than taking advantage of the zeal which Elijah bleats on about, Yahweh gives the prophet some rather modest tasks — instructions for passing on command to others. Where Elijah, thinking himself something of a heroic martyr, tells God that he’s the only one who has remained loyal, Yahweh tells him that he has seven thousand men up his sleeve who haven’t bent the knee before Baal. One can understand what might be meant by zeal exercised on behalf of a god who appears with hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires. But what on earth might it mean to be zealous in the service of a still, small voice? It is a somewhat humbled Elijah who sets off to carry out his appointed tasks.
Well, I’d like to suggest that this scene offers us a valuable witness to the theological process which is at work in the development of the Hebrew scriptures: the theological power of the crisis of confidence which goes along with the collapse of the sacred. At the beginning we have a sacred Yahwism, which can shine alongside another sacred religion, but whose sacrifices are more efficacious, whose God is more powerful, and whose capacity to unite people for a sacred war is greater. Then we have all that undone. The still small voice says much more than it seems to: it says that God is not a rival to Baal, that God is not to be found in the appearances of sacred violence. Elijah, when he entered into rivalry with the prophets of Baal became one of them, because God is not to be found in such circuses, nor in the murders which go along with them. At the end of his un-deceiving, Elijah is more Yahwist, more atheist, less of a shaman, less of a sacrificer, because God is not like the gods, not even so as to show himself superior to them. The cave of Horeb was, for Elijah, the theological space for a blush.
Here we are face to face with the collapse of the sacred, a real demolition of personal structures and ways of speaking about God. This collapse is the crucible in which theological development is wrought. (Faith Beyond Resentment, pp. 27-30)
***** End of Alison Excerpt *****
2. John Dear, Transfiguration: A Meditation on Transforming Ourselves and Our World.
3. Anthony Bartlett, Virtually Christian, p. 230, mentions the Transfiguration in the context of the First Century Jewish expectation of the return of Elijah before the Messiah, especially from Malachi 4:5: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.”
4. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, pp. 245-46. In the essay on atonement, Alison is reconstructing the original scapegoat ritual of Leviticus 16 as carried out in the ancient temple. As the priest readies himself to enter the Holy of Holies, he puts on a robe:
At this stage, the High Priest is going to get into a brilliant white robe or tunic, pure, glistening white, and this is because he is about to acquire angelic status — not an angel in the modern sense, but in the more ancient sense in which the “Angel of the Lord” meant “a particular localized instantiation of the Lord.” It is as “Instantiation of the Lord” that the High Priest will emerge from the Holy of Holies, in glistening white, with the Tiara bearing the Name YHWH — the Tetragrammaton — upon his head, and maniples, or cufflinks, also bearing the name. Of course, we have a memory of this moment of the rite in the narrative of the Transfiguration where Jesus is revealed as the instantiation of YHWH in refulgent white. Naturally Peter and the other disciples want to stay with this bit of the rite, so Jesus has to insist from then on that he is going to head down the hill and up to Jerusalem to perform the sacrifice which is the next part of the rite.
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from February 10, 2002 (Woodside Village Church), and sermon from February 3, 2008 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
4. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2011, titled “The White Light.”
5. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” wrote a brief essay on the Transfiguration in 2014, “The Transfigured Glory of God’s Children“; in 2017, “Transfiguration on the Way to the Cross“; and in 2020, “The Beloved Son on the Mount.”
Reflections and Questions
1. For more on an angle for the Transfiguration story, see Transfiguration C. The lectionary for Year C combines Luke’s Transfiguration story with the following one about the casting out of a demon. This lection might be seen, then, as two stories about hearing voices, first from God and then from a demon. I’ve had mentally ill folks in a Bible study on Transfiguration C who shared the dilemma of hearing voices. How does one know if they are from God or from Satan? My answer: If the voice you hear seeks to put you in danger in any way, or asks you to do violence to another or yourself, then it is the voice of Satan. God’s voice, that we learn to hear through Jesus Christ, is a voice of mercy and forgiveness, never of violence. (Link to a sermon on this theme, “A Vision and Voice to Heal the Sin-Sick Soul.”)
2. The sermon from Epiphany 1A, titled “One Is Not the Loneliest Number,” could also be used with this passage, since it is based on God the Father’s words to the Son, common to both the baptism and transfiguration stories.
3. In 1993 I preached a sermon on the transfiguration story as a glimpsing of future peace as a call to mission, entitled “A Glimpse of Glory.”