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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Mount Tabor is everywhere

I’ve come to look at the story of the Transfiguration as part of the story of the Passion. Of course, I know that’s sort of a given, since the entire gospel story is part of the passion, which is the visible manifestation of the “paschal mystery,” which is the nature of God in whose likeness we are created. In the gospel of Luke, the first book of his diptych that ends with the Acts of the Apostles, the mission of Jesus is oriented toward Jerusalem and what transpires there, his passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit, and then the story moves to Acts where the Church’s mission parallels that of the Lord in many ways, dispersing from Jerusalem throughout the Mediterranean world.

Chapter 9 of Luke is full of interesting material, but the story of the transfiguration is situated between the end of the Galilean mission and the journey to Jerusalem. One interesting thing about the chapter is that Elijah keeps being mentioned, first by Herod, who has heard the rumors circulating that Jesus might be Elijah, back from the dead. Then, in the next section as when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”, Peter replies that some are saying he is Elijah. Later, after the transfiguration (where Jesus appears to converse with Moses and Elijah), when there is a mission to Samaria mentioned, and the Samaritans won’t receive the band of travelers, the disciples ask if they should beseech heaven to “rain down fire” upon them. Jesus rejects this solution, which is the tack Elijah took in 2 Kings 1, when he called down fire from heaven on hostile forces from the king. Not being so knowledgable in my reading of the Jewish scriptures, I missed that allusion, and I think it’s important in the context of the Transfiguration story. Jesus (or, more precisely, Luke) is more or less putting to rest the “reincarnation” theory, at least as far as Elijah is concerned, because Jesus doesn’t act in the vindictive and violent way that the earlier prophet had acted when rejected. He simply moves on to tell the story elsewhere.

The story of the transfiguration is sandwiched between two predictions of the Passion (9:22, then 9:44), which further cements its relationship to that key gospel narrative. Moving toward his destiny in Jerusalem, Jesus takes his three friends up the mountain to pray for a while. There, the transfiguration takes place, a wondrous moment that leaves the disciples dumbfounded and babbling, but reveals the glory of God in Jesus. Again, as at the Jordan, the voice from the cloud is heard to call Jesus “my chosen son,” exhorting the three to listen to what he has to say. One has to think that, since the event is sandwiched between the predictions of the passion, that this is what the voice wants them to hear: that the Messiah has to die, which is what they don’t want to hear. They don’t understand it, but seem to interpret the event in terms of a regal ascendancy, because in 9:46 they’re arguing (again) over who will be the greatest.

It is from chapter 9 of Luke that I got the phrase that became the inspiration for one of what I consider my best songs, “Jerusalem, My Destiny,” which I wrote for Lent in 1989, if you can believe this, 18 Lents ago, six 3-year lectionary cycles. After coming down from the Mount Tabor, the mount of Transfiguration, Luke reports that “he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem,” (9:51). The literal translation of “resolutely determined” is “set his face toward”, which is the origin of the first lines of the refrain:

I have fixed my eyes on your hills,

Jerusalem, my destiny!

Though I cannot see the end for me,

I cannot turn away.

As you probably know if you are reading this, the rest of the refrain joins our “Jerusalem journey” to Christ’s and to each other’s, while each of the five verses tries to use imagery from the scriptures of each of the Sundays in Lent, culminating in a bridge with images from Palm Sunday.

I think that I have some incipient or nascent understanding of what is going on in the story of the Transfiguration. Not that I think I know what actually happened, or what it means in any complete sense, but I think there’s something about God’s goodness in the story, about God’s traveling with us the perilous journey of non-violence and faithfulness to the dream of an open society where there is no coveting, greed, prejudice, or exclusion. The more universal and analogous experience is the sense that however bad things get, we get moments, glimpses, rushes of insight, ecstasy and light. 
These moments give us the courage we need to persevere in our vocation, whatever it may be. Jesus, on Tabor, is seen talking to Moses and Elijah, and I think one of the reasons Luke names them is that both Moses and Elijah were part of the scriptural vector of resistance to both secular and religious power. As Moses faced Pharaoh and Elijah faced Jezebel, Ahab and the guild prophets, Jesus faced, on behalf of the reign of God, the Jerusalem cabal of Rome and the collaborating Temple economy. And, of course, mountain encounters with God figure into the stories of Moses and Elijah as well.

Certainly, there is a soul-shattering echo of this story in the preaching and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, one of his most famous speeches, repeated in part on the night before he was assassinated amidst the barely contained tension and violence resulting from the Memphis garbage collectors strike of 1968, included the repeated refrain “I’ve been to the mountaintop.” King’s journey, which he took for and with people of good will of many colors and faiths on behalf of the poor and marginalized of this nation, was fraught with threats, terror, and violence. He certainly feared for his life and safety as he went about the country, and for the safety of his young family (it’s instructive to remember that King died a young man at the age of 39.) And yet, he continually preached that the vision he had been given “on the mountaintop” gave him strength to pursue his mission, with the sense that God was walking the streets of America with him, giving him the strength to overcome his fear and anxiety. 

I think that much of life is like that, mostly in smaller ways. There’s the sense, every morning, however awful things might be in our lives, that there’s the possibility of a new beginning. That’s a little view from Mount Tabor, isn’t it? I don’t want to sound bourgeois about it; I know that there is much genuine suffering which goes unabated. But specifically, when a path is chosen because of divine mission, there are unexpected joys and moments of shining brilliance that surprise us with their intensity, and fill our memories with hope. In my day-to-day work, I know that I feel a sense of vocation and mission, that what I’m doing is important because God has called me to it. Sometimes it’s clear to me that success is not only not the prize but it’s out of my reach. Sometimes I want to quit, the voices of ultra-conservatism (or anarchy) in the church seem so loud and strident, and their theories, as repulsive as they may be to me, have won the day. Other days, things at the parish are just insane, and what we end up doing on Sunday seems about as far from what I want for the liturgy as they can be. But then I’ll get an email from a parishioner, or someone will drop by and talk to me, or a friend or colleague will remind me that “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.” (Eccl. 9:11) It’s in relation to the mission and the cross that the moments of Transfiguration happens, when we are allowed to see through the veil of fear, sadness, and mortality to see the greater picture.
Do you think that sounds too bourgeois? Could only a middle-class first-world person write that about the feast? It’s not that it’s about me, but it’s the sense that I matter to the whole reign of God, that I’m part of what makes it whole, and that that message is somehow delivered right in the midst of feeling badly about things. 

I don’t know. That’s how I see it today, anyway. Tabors everywhere. Some are more molehills than mountains, but there’s the sense that, in the midst of the cloud, while my friends are with me, someone is saying, “this is my chosen son.” Note that the “listen to him” has been divinely excised from any oracle surrounding my presence! I’ll settle for being chosen. That is challenge enough for my faith, and sustains it.

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