Last revised: March 11, 2019
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THE TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD — YEAR C
RCL: Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36 (37-43)
Note: Roman Catholics observe the Transfiguration on the Second Sunday in Lent
1. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred, has two excellent chapters on Moses, the Exodus, sacrifice and covenant.
2. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, makes the following comments about Exodus 34:
The second set of commandments is introduced this way:
Yahweh said to Moses, “Cut two tablets of stone like the first ones and come up to me on the mountain, and I will inscribe on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke.” (Exod. 34:1)
The original code is now to be replaced, and there is every indication that the replacement will be a facsimile of the original. By asserting the identity between the two codes, the authors and redactors of the text have made it all but impossible for the reader to miss the obvious fact that they are utterly different. The new set of commandments is completely preoccupied with the maintenance of rituals and cultic procedures.
All that first issues from the womb is mine . . . You must not offer the blood of the victim sacrificed to me at the same time as you offer unleavened bread, nor is the victim offered at the feast of Passover to be put aside for the following day . . . You must not boil a kid in its mother’s milk. (Exod. 34:18, 19, 25, 26)
“All that first issues from the womb is mine,” is a sweeping demand that the first-born be sacrificed. It is a demand that sometimes occurs, ominously, without qualification, but in this text the all-important exception is duly noted: “You must redeem all the first-born of your sons.” This redemption involved a double substitution. First, the sacrificial priest took the place of the first-born, and then the sacrificial animal he offered on the altar took his place. Not only was the priest the divine executioner, but he was also the designated victim in whose place the actual victim died as his substitute. Should the sacrificial ritual break down, however, the substitution might be abrogated and the priest himself die. The priest was, therefore, Abel as well as Cain, Isaac as well as Abraham. That the system of sacrificial substitutions was a delicate one is clear from the intense scrupulosity with which the ritual procedures were followed. Any little mistake might lead to a collapse of the intricate system of replacement and result in a human death or in a ritual meltdown, giving way to social crisis. For a textbook on how to take liturgical care under such precarious circumstances, the book of Leviticus is available. (pp. 148-149)
3. See Hamerton-Kelly below.
Reflections and Questions
1. Some of the commentaries mention that the Hebrew word for “shine” in vs. 29 is the same or similar to the word for “horn” — such that Michelangelo sculpted Moses with horns. Three years ago Ann Lammers, participant in this list, offered the following explanation:
There is a three-letter Hebrew root, KRN, whose basic meaning is “horn.” Pointed as a noun, it’s pronounced “keren.” That same three-letter root is the basis of a verb, pointed as “karan,” that appears three times in Exodus 34. Its subject each time is “the skin of Moses’ face.”
A standard Hebrew-English lexicon (Brown, Driver & Briggs) gives many variants of meaning for words built on KRN, almost all which have to do with horns–horns of animals; of the altar; as musical instruments and drinking vessels; horns symbolizing arrogance, power, fullness, lordliness, maturity, etc. These three verses in Exodus 34 (29, 30, 35) are apparently the only place where KRN means “sending out rays of light.”
Hebrew has other words meaning “shine, shed light.” It’s striking that the writer chose this word. Maybe the light coming from Moses’ face seems solid, connected to and growing from his skin. Maybe we should hear the symbolic and figurative meanings of horns in Hebrew– maturity, power, lordliness, arrogance, plenty, the corners of the altar– as well as the singular meaning, “sending out rays.”
I find it intriguing that the radiance of sacred glory might be etymologically connected with a mythological mainstay like a human being having horns.
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, “Faith as the Fulfillment of the Law,” pp. 158-160. He writes, “At issue, therefore, are two different interpretations of Torah, one that caused the death of Christ and one that prevents such violence. They are respectively the Mosaic reading and the reading through faith in the Cross of Christ.” He then goes on to elaborate Paul’s reading of our First Lesson (Exodus 34:33-34) in 2 Corinthians 3-5. Paul “boldly reinterprets the meaning of the term ‘veil’ to mean something like ‘a veil of ignorance…,’ which is removed only when one turns to the Lord Jesus in faith.” And, finally, “A grand soteriological category like ‘new creation’ therefore has as its practical application a way of reading Torah that at last enables one to see its revelation as the disclosure of sacred violence and the command for agape love.”
2. Willard Swartley, “Discipleship and Imitation of Jesus/Suffering Servant: The Mimesis of New Creation,” ch. 11 in Violence Renounced, p. 237. Swartley turns a phrase on the title of Girard’s Things Hidden and titles the unveiling in Jesus Christ as “Things Destined (Now Revealed) before the Foundation of the World.” He climaxes his exposition of Paul’s theology by keynoting it with 2 Cor. 3:17-18. Swartley writes:
But not only is the believer’s life to be modeled ethically after virtues that flow from the new life in Christ, but the destiny of believers is interconnected to a process of change, as 2 Cor. 3:17-18 describes it.
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
Here the image that functions as the object of desire is the exalted Lord Jesus who significantly (see 1 Cor. 4) is never unhooked from the suffering Jesus Christ. But this also means that the model of mimetic desire in the new creation is not only the Jesus of suffering, forgiving, and humble service, but also the exalted, vindicated Jesus, victorious over the powers of evil.
The fundamental conception in Pauline thought that unites believers to their Savior Jesus Christ is the “in Christ” stream of emphasis, so pervasive that entire epistolary discourses are shaped by it (Rom. 6 and 8; Eph. 1). Paul also uses numerous co-constructions (with the Greek prefix sun): co-buried (sunetraphemen, Rom. 6:4), united with him (sumphutoi, 6:5), co-crucified (sunestaurothe, 6:6), co-died (apethanomen, 6:8), co-live (suzesomen, 6:8), co-inherit, co-suffer, and be co-glorified (all in 8:17). The grand climax to this co-participation language comes in Rom. 8:29: “in order that we might be conformed (co-formed, summorphous) into the image (eikonos) of God’s Son, in order that he might be the firstborn (prototokon) among many brothers and sisters.”
This identification with Christ as model is so strong that in some texts Jesus Christ is said to be (manifest) in the believers: the life of Jesus is manifest in our dying bodies (2 Cor. 4:10-12), Christ’s sufferings abound in us (2 Cor. 1:5-7); Christ is glorified in my (our) body (Phil. 1:20); that Christ be formed in you (pl.; Gal. 4:19); Christ in you (pl.), the hope of glory (Col. 1:27); and that Christ dwell in your (pl.) hearts by faith (Eph. 3:17a).
Although this language, part and parcel of the massive in Christ emphasis, has generated much debate over whether this relationship is to be understood mystically — and if so, what kind? — its obvious connection to the core emphases on imitation/example/following Jesus should not be missed. If there is a mysticism here, it is moral and mimetic at its core. It is linked to desire and assumes that thought, conduct, and aspiration are governed by new desires. The point is put most sharply in Paul’s exposition on the first and second Adam (in Rom. 5:12ff.) and his depiction of the new Christ reality as a new creation: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17).
Grounded in the life, death, and God’s resurrection of Jesus, this new reality makes possible “Things Destined (Now Revealed) before the Foundation of the World.” The “in Christ” person dies to the old acquisitive mimetic desire and lives by the power of a new mimesis, imitating the pattern of Jesus Christ and seeking to be conformed to his image. Jesus in the fullness of his work enables renunciation of the natural human desire for reward or glory.
This desire is “cross-fired,” refined through transformation. Through this experience, solely possible through the Pioneer of the faith, we learn a new pattern of mimetic desire, one that leads not to rivalry and violence, but to building others up, avoiding scandal, preferring one another, empowering the other, and nonretaliation against evil in order that as members of the community of the new creation we break the spiral of violence and become the strands of yarn that by God’s Spirit are knitted into the display of love, justice, and shalom. (pp. 237-239)
3. 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,” made these Transfiguration reflections in 2016, “How Is the Gospel Veiled?“; and in 2018, “Transfiguring Darkness.”
Reflections and Questions
1. These days a passage like this one from Paul, in which he is so critical of his former faith, makes us uncomfortable under our own modern sensitivity to anti-Semitism. One is tempted to run away from it. Passages such as this have undoubtably been used in the cause of anti-Semitism, i.e., to self-righteously show how wrong Jews are and how right we are, as a justification for our persecution of them.
To read this passage anti-Semitically is to fall under the very same veil. The overall anthropological problem is that we take Torah and cover it over with a veil of sacred violence. Even Moses fell into that trap, and so do Christians when they read this text anti-Semitically. The veil which Moses places over the reading of Torah is a wider anthropological problem, not just a Jewish one.
For Paul, his own personal experience of this veil was his Jewish persecution of Christians, and so he needed to locate the roots of that persecution in the Mosaic reading of the Torah. Tragically, the most glaring example of such a veil of sacred violence in our experience 2000 years later is centuries of the Christian persecution of Jews. The Preacher might want to confront anti-Semitism, and anti-Semitic readings of this passage, as the most poignant illustration of the veil of the Sacred that Christ came to remove.
1. On the theme of glory, which is prominent in these lections, James Alison, Raising Abel, p. 182, quotes Luke 9:26 (just two verses before our lection): “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” Alison elaborates on the theme that doxa, glory, can be translated with the sense of “reputation.” He writes:
If they manage not to be ashamed of what the world treats as despicable, then, when the final revelation of the Son of man with angels appears, where it will be established beyond doubt who God really is, that is, the risen victim will be the central axis of all the life stories that are under construction; then, at that moment those who were little concerned about the loss of their reputation will receive an everlasting reputation: they will hear in the midst of a huge public what every little child wants to hear from its parents: “That’s right, little one, that’s what I wanted; I like what you’ve done”.
2. See last year’s reflections on the Transfiguration (Year B). There is also a sermon entitled “A Downer of a Mountian Top Experience,” which is a monologue of St. Peter telling his version of the story in plain language that makes a basic case for the importance of the Girardian anthropology (without naming it as such).
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from February 25, 2001 (Woodside Village Church), and sermon from February 18, 2007 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto), and sermon from February 14, 2010 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
4. Sermons from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby in 2013, “The Departure He Will Accomplish“; and in 2016, “Overwhelmed by God’s Greatness“; and in 2019, “Everyone Was Overwhelmed by God’s Greatness.”
5. Russ Hewett, pastor of MeetingPlace near Bangor, Maine, offers this blog on the Transfiguration, “The Transfiguration: Unveiling Our Blind Eyes.”
Reflections and Questions
1. The two parts of this passage might seem rather disparate: the transfiguration (vs. 28-36) and then the casting out of a demon (vs. 37-43). But perhaps they can be linked by the hearing of voices and seeing visions. We take as true the vision seen by the disciples and the voice heard by them. But how about the visions that may have been seen and the voices heard by the mentally ill boy? Isn’t there a fine line between prophecy and having a psychotic break? How does one discern the spirits between truth and madness? I’ve had mentally ill people describe their visions and voices to me as alternately that of angels and of demons. They want to know how to tell the difference. In the Gospels, the voice of Jesus drives away the voices of demons.
But let’s link the visions and voices to prophecy, too, with the appearance of two of Israel’s great prophets at the transfiguration. Perhaps the failure of the disciples in verses 37-43 highlights the fact that they haven’t yet quite learned to walk the fine line of prophecy that drives away madness. The voice from the cloud is trying to give them guidance: “Listen to Jesus!” it says. When they come down the mountain, they can’t yet help someone who’s demon-possessed. They haven’t quite learned yet to sort out the voices.
This is amplified a few verses later when we read in the turning point of Luke’s Gospel:
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them [as Elijah did]?” But he turned and rebuked them. (Luke 9:51-55)
I’ve put in brackets a portion that only some ancient texts include, but I think these words “as Elijah did” link up well with the transfiguration story. Elijah was a prophet who heard Yahweh’s voice, but not perfectly. Some of the things he thought he heard from God were from demons, like the story in 2 Kings 1 where Elijah does call down fire from heaven on a Samaritan king. Or when he follows up his victory at Mt. Carmel by having all the prophets of Baal killed (1 Kings 18:40). The disciples have not learned yet to listen to Jesus’ voice above all others. They are still inclined to hear the voice of Satan through the prophet Elijah calling for violence against ones enemies: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them as Elijah did?” (For more on Luke 9:51-55, see an excerpt from the essay “The Work of René Girard as a New Key to Biblical Hermeneutics.”)
My answer, then, to the mentally ill who want to discern the spirits? 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. In 2010 these insights were combined with a 2008 PBS movie that made a huge impact on me: God on Trial. The resulting sermon is titled “Visioning Salvation from Our Violence.” This day was also First Communion for a number of our young people, so I included the Passover among examples of needing to prioritize Jesus in understanding the stories of Moses. And shortly thereafter I addressed our interpretation of the Passover in a newsletter column. We question Pat Robertson when he says the earthquake in Haiti was God’s punishment. Shouldn’t we also question the interpretation of the Passover that sees the plagues as God’s punishment on Pharaoh and Egypt?
3. A basic question for me with the Transfiguration story is: why Elijah and Moses? Are they meant as positive models to rub off on Jesus? Or are they meant more as a contrast, that Jesus is different from these past heroes? Or both? I favor viewing them largely as a contrast. Our other two lessons certainly feature the Pauline contrast between Jesus and Moses. I think that Luke himself provides some of the contrast with Elijah.
It may be questionable to base the following argument on a phrase that is textually questionable, but I’m going to do it anyway. In a pivotal story that follows shortly after our lection, Jesus skips a Samaritan village because he has set his face toward Jerusalem. The disciples, out of deep-seated prejudice, assume that Jesus has skipped this village for less benign reasons and so ask him, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Lk 9:54) Other ancient authorities add “like Elijah did” to their question. I feel that even if Luke didn’t explicitly state the connection, the connection is there to be made between this passage and the one in 2 Kings 1:1-16, where we read: (2 Kings 1:12) “But Elijah answered them, ‘If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.’ Then the fire of God came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty.” Jesus rebukes the disciples for their desire to imitate Elijah. And in the Transfiguration story, Jesus is standing with Elijah and Moses and the voice from heaven declares, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” In other words, the disciples are to imitate Jesus, not these two heroes from the past.
4. Peter can represent the anthropological impulse to immediately veil everything under the aura of the sacred. He voices the sacral impulse to build shrines on top of a mountain, which is primarily the remnant of sacrificing someone on a mountain. If St. Paul’s strategy of using Moses as an example of that same impulse feels too anti-Semitic to us, then the preacher can use Peter, this pillar on which the church was built. Peter exemplifies our constant and consistent compulsion to veil things in the Sacred. That veiling is symbolically torn open in the gospels at the moment Jesus dies on the cross, as the temple veil is rent in two, and the nature of the Sacred is revealed.
5. Many commentators debate whether the Transfiguration story was originally a post-resurrection appearance story, place by the evangelists in the middle to afford a glimpse of the Resurrected Jesus. I guess I prefer to see it as somehow pointing to a real event during the life of Jesus, a revelatory event that later enabled the disciples to be confronted by the Resurrected Jesus in a way that the veil finally began to be removed. It planted the seed that grew into faith when they experienced their Risen Lord.