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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Transfiguration: Subverting Apocalypse

It's the Christian version of The Great Escape. Earth is turned into a living hell for a thousand years, and believers are airlifted out by the hair in the Rapture. Makes a good fantasy, makes a lot of money for the authors of the Left Behind series, but it's so different from the gospel, and in today’s feast, the feast of the Transfiguration, we begin to grasp the vision of a world saved by a God who is incarnate, who empowers human beings and makes us sacraments, who delivers us from hell by living among us, making a heaven.

Today's first reading from the Book of Daniel dates from the Hasmonean persecution of Israel under Antiochus Epiphanes, a tyrant whose brutality has been repeated down the ages in his infectious sadism inflicted by his occupying armies upon the local people, terrorizing them through assaults on their humanity, their beliefs, and their icons. In response to this kind of lengthy assault on the values of the culture (Maccabees reports, for instance, that the king rededicated the Temple to Zeus, and sacrificed pigs on the altar; women who were among the dissidents were slaughtered, and their babies hung around their necks – this was not a nice guy), literature arose that we call "apocalyptic," a kind of coded story of deliverance in which the bad guys were named and given their comeuppance by God. After the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and other Jewish sites in 70 CE or so, and when the Roman persecutions of the church were in full blossom, more such literature arose in the guise of the Book of Revelation, purportedly by John the Divine, in which Rome is thinly disguised as a beast with seven heads in service of the (demonic) dragon.

What is important for us is that Daniel sees deliverance in his vision as beginning with a servant of the Ancient One whom he says is like a "son of man." This phrase sounds striking and important in English, but it is really just a hebrewism that simply means "a human being," that is, the one whom Daniel sees appears to be just like him, a mortal. 
It is significant that Jesus takes this name upon himself (or that the gospel writers give it to him) and in today's gospel he "he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead." Reflecting this practice, the passage refers to the Jesus of the Transfiguration as the Son of Man, a phrase that is intended to draw us back into the book of Daniel and his vision of a world saved from desecration and chaos.

The story of the Transfiguration in today's liturgy is from chapter 9 of Luke's gospel. Interestingly and pointedly, it is sandwiched between predictions of the passion and death of Christ, including the rebuke of Peter's identification of him as "the Christ." Following this episode is a warning about the cost of following him, and then today's gospel.

How does Jesus subvert the apocalypse, and therefore, how are we called to follow him in doing so? I think that I have found this articulated most clearly in James Allison's book Raising Abel: The Recovery of Eschatological Imagination. Jesus is, of course, born into a culture ripe with apocalyptic expectation. The Judeans, having lived as a vassal state for about two centuries, were tired of being the doormat of the Mediterranean. Even though Rome had been tolerant of their religion and relatively generous in their governance, giving them an "ethnarch," in Herod, someone at least in name from their own race to lead them, they awaited a Messiah who would lead a rebellion and restore the golden age of the Davidic dynasty. 


After the miracle of the loaves, the people wanted to take Jesus by force and make him king. He seemed to disappear from their midst. In the story of the Transfiguration, too, though the three apostles had apparently witnessed the theophany (in 2nd Peter today, Simon again testifies to what he saw) Jesus warns them (in Mt and Mk) to keep it a secret until "after the Son of Man has risen from the dead." In Luke, the witnesses are silent, but without Jesus's warning. Before Pilate, in John's version of the Passion, Jesus tells the Roman governor that his "kingdom is not like those of this world," and that even though legions of angels might be available to intervene on his behalf, it would not happen. What are we to understand from this restraint of power?

Jesus will not participate in the apocalyptic imagination of Israel because it seeks to replace a violent and dreadful governance by the use of counterforce and violence, and this is something of which God will have no part. Jesus knows that the Son of Man in the vision of Daniel is seen to be a messiah and a military one at that, but rather than invest that vision with any reality that would fortify that understanding, he chooses instead to align himself with a more Isaian image, that of the suffering servant, the one who endures the rejection and revulsion of people in obedience to the will of God. Trusting in God's strength and history to save him, he throws his lot in with the history of his nation, whatever the outcome may be for his personal safety. It is God who is Lord of the earth, not Caesar, and God's kingdom is not like Caesar's. The reign of God is seen when swords are beaten into plowshares, and lamb and lion, leopard and kid graze together in the pasture.

Jesus hears the voice on Tabor that he heard at the Jordan, once again testified to by the eyewitnesses, "This my son (servant), who is my beloved. Listen to him." For Jesus, God's reign is truly "at hand," close enough that he can be strengthened by the moment for the journey to Jerusalem and the cross. Moses and Elijah, also political renegades from Israel's past, are there to offer their witness to God's faithfulness. He stakes his honor on obedience to one who calls him "beloved." That call has resonated down the ages, inspiring generation after generation of his followers to listen for the same voice in our own lives. 

When has God called me beloved? Where has heaven bent toward earth in my life and rescued me from abandoning my vocation? I thought of the heavens opening at times when I hear singing in the church that reminds me of why I chose to take the path that was shown me as a young man, why I chose to become a church musician, even though the future appeared less secure for me and my family. The sound of this singing a music has carried me past the personal abuse I've had to put up with over the years from some of my church "bosses," and when criticism from other musicians and occasionally parishioners has been harsh. It is the voice of God singing in the hearts of the assembly that strengthens me, sometimes it has driven me to tears of joy or wonder or gratitude, but it gives me resolve to continue in this life until another road becomes clear.

Jesus is the road, the "way, the truth, and the life." "No one comes to the Father but through me," John says in chapter 6 of his gospel. Christ is the road to heaven, not through a Rapture, not through a revolution or some other violence, not through a dramatic deus ex machina kind of salvation that doesn't lead through the cross. Jesus is the road, a human being, a person like us. He saves the world by giving his life away, and in the resurrection, is revealed to be the innocent Son of God while still the "son of man," the human one. Receivers of his Spirit in our common baptismal vocation, in confirmation, and in the Eucharist, we are made into a people, "children of men and women," who are being made divine by the Spirit's action among us. "As the Father sent me, so I send you" are words that continue to ring in our ears and call us to subvert the apocalyptic babble around us. The future is now: "when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or naked or in prison, and not minister to you? And he will tell them, 'Whenever you did not do it for one of these, the least of my brothers and sisters, you did not do it for me.'" 

Christ may or may not be "coming again" in some visible historical way. What we do know is that Christ is here now, in the everyday need of people on this planet, and in the gifts of the Church when put to their service. Let's embrace our humanity, embrace all of humanity, for the divine presence within. When that divinity flares out in moments of transfiguring grace, let us hold on to those as well, and cling to them when the Beast raises any of his many fearsome heads.