Today is the Last Sunday of Epiphany. As you know the Greek root for epiphany, epiphainein means “to manifest, come suddenly into view.” An epiphany is a revelation. The season began with the Epiphany, the revelation to the Magi of the birth of the Messiah. It ends with another, even more significant one. The Transfiguration is a Theophany, a manifestation of the presence of God to the disciples that was both visual and audible.
On a mountaintop Peter, James and John, see Jesus’ appearance transformed. His face is changed. His clothes become radiant, white. Then the heavens open and they see Moses and the prophet Elijah, historic heroes, who represent the Law and the Prophets in Hebrew scripture. Their presence, conversing with Jesus, lifts him out of time and to the highest level of sacred honor.
When the brief, miraculous apparition ends suddenly, the disciples hear God’s own voice. At his baptism in Luke, Jesus alone had heard the voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved. In you I am well pleased.” But here God speaks to the disciples saying: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
All of the synoptic gospels include the Transfiguration, so we hear the story at this point in each of the three years of our lectionary cycle. Different Old Testament and Epistle readings are matched with each gospel. That invites readers and preachers to make fresh associations, to see the event in a different ‘light’. Today, both the Exodus text and the Epistle focus on Moses’ transfiguration, the fact that his face was radiant, shining, whenever he came back down from his mountaintop encounters, having met God face to face.
The gift of reading these Exodus, gospel and epistle texts together, is tracing the growth and the expansion of God’s personal engagement with humanity writ large. Whereas Moses alone among the people Israel had the direct experience of God’s presence, and receiving God’s word, at the Transfiguration that blessing was bestowed upon Jesus and his most trusted disciples.
Commentator Carla Works wrote
“…the revelation of Jesus’ glory is so spectacular that it initiates the transfiguration of all who are in Christ. In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul claims that even the Corinthian church is being transformed to reflect God’s glory.”
Moses, Jesus and the disciples were all Jewish, God’s chosen people, but many of the Corinthians were Gentiles. Paul declared that the Spirit’s blessing is now for everyone. He urged the Corinthians and us all boldly, openly to receive the transforming, transfiguring Spirit of God in Christ. He wrote:
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.
The Spirit’s Transformation
We all can think of people whose presence radiates with the Spirit’s transformation. The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu was one. The Dalai Lama is another. But among us there are many, many others, the everyday saints who bear and share the transformative love and mercy of God in special moments.
I had such a moment when I was in seminary, doing Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at Ben Taub Hospital in the Medical Center in Houston. The patients there are usually either medically indigent or those brought to the level-1 trauma unit from the whole region. I divided my time that summer between the hospital and the County system’s stand-alone HIV/AIDS clinic downtown. The Episcopal Church wisely requires CPE for ordination. It helps—sometimes forces–you face your fears, your issues around illness, disability, and death before you have to help your flock go through them.
I had just had one life-changing CPE experience at the clinic. It was the year 2000, when a variety of prescription ‘cocktails’ let some people continue to live with HIV. Visiting patients while they received their infusions at the clinic, I had chatted with a dear young man, on whom I had projected my Pollyanna assumptions that all would be well. When I related that sunny view to his mother, she stopped me cold: “We’re just trying to make him comfortable,” she said. Her son was dying. I was so utterly shattered by my presumption and self-delusion that I felt it in my body. I didn’t know who I was anymore.
Reeling, I went back to Ben Taub and wandered into a ward. There, alone on the corner bed, sat a man in his twenties who was wrapping bandages around his leg. He had sickle-cell anemia and was happily caring for himself there, as if he were at home. He extended his hand and with a warm smile he said, “I’m Wesley Smith, called to preach the gospel at 13.” I pointed to my white hair and said I had been called a good bit later. Grinning, he replied, “Sister, long as the parousia ain’t happened, you’re right on time.”
I do not know whether he could see my pain, my confusion, my doubt about my Call. What I saw was the radiance of God’s Spirit shining through this beautiful young man. In the course of our conversation, his loving presence tenderly bandaged my wounded heart and soul. Reflecting anew on that meeting, I know it would not have happened if I had not been “unveiled”. Disarmed, stripped of my usually composed persona by the previous encounter, I was vulnerable enough, defenseless enough fully to receive the blessing.
Those precious moments when soul meets soul require openness both to bless and to be blessed.
We have entered a very uncertain time in world affairs. As we pray with our whole hearts for the Ukrainian people, that God will strengthen them and that they will prevail, let us ground our hope in God, deepening our commitment to be bearers of the Spirit in mercy, love, and peace here and now.
St. Paul knew that each of us can allow the Spirit to transform us, bit by bit, day by day, into the image of God in Christ. That is the blessing and the vocation of our life here at Emmanuel. Boldly claiming both the blessing and the vocation, surrendering ourselves, our souls, more and more to trust in the Spirit, let us grow both to see and reflect the glory of the Lord in our own and in other people’s faces.