Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; II Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a).
God’s Glory – awesome and elusive, but marking out special Servants.
The Christian liturgical year alternates between highs and lows, between peaks of glory and valleys of need and penitence.
At this point in the year we have the extremes of such an alternation: This week is Transfiguration Sunday, but it is followed in a few days by Ash Wednesday, and then the first Sunday in Lent. In seven days, the high of Glory and the low of fasting and penitence.
The reading from the Law for this Sunday concerns the special status of Moses – the mediator of the commands of the Lord to the people.
In the history of tradition in Israel, Moses’ status grew greater and greater. Increasingly he was seen as the human who linked the people to God and through whom (alone) God delivered instruction (torah) to the people. In this passage we hear a speculative, almost playful, visualization of such an awesome human role.
What must it have been like? What would have happened when a human being – even a mighty man like Moses – stood with God on repeated occasions to hear God’s will for the people’s future life? Our narrative lifts up one aspect of such near-to-heaven adventures by Moses.
“Moses did not know that the skin of his face shown because he had been talking with God” (verse 29, NRSV). The verb translated “shown” comes from the Hebrew noun meaning “horn.” Moses, it is said, was “en-horned.”
The image refers to the way horns on cattle may form a larger circle around the animal’s head. (Thousands of years later, Michelangelo would paint Moses with actual horns coming out of his head, because of this passage.) The story is saying that Moses had a halo; his face glowed with reflected light from the divine glory. The Greek translation says Moses’ face was “glorified,” the perfect tense of a verb derived from the noun doxa, glory.
This midrashic story goes on to elaborate two consequences of Moses’ reflected glory. First, this heavenly radiation scared people away (verse 30). Moses was dangerous, or at least belonged to a different realm, not to be approached by ordinary folks. Moses could not transmit the commands of God to the people if they wouldn’t come near him. Moses called out to them, so they would recognize that it was really he and not some dangerous superhuman force, and gradually, because they recognized him, they approached – the leaders first, and finally all the ordinary people (verses 31-32). Then Moses was able to give them “in commandment all that the Lord had spoken to him on Mount Sinai” (verse 32). When the fear was overcome, they could hear the directions for right living.
The second consequence of Moses’ glory was the veil (verses 33-35). Moses put a veil over his face when he was not addressing the people, a veil he took off, of course, when he returned to hear God again. The timing of the veil is significant. “[W]hen he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with” God (verses 34-35).
When delivering the revelation to the people, the veil was not on his face. The glowing face was a sign that Moses was speaking as the divine messenger; the veil was a sign that revelation was off, Moses was not acting as the mediator.
The theme of glory is extended in the psalm reading, though now it is more the holy that is emphasized. This is one of the greatest of the “Enthronement of the Lord” psalms. (Others are Psalms 47, 93, 96-98.) Modern scholars have come to recognize that the kingship of the Lord was not just a reference to an eternal quality of God, but was an event in time, that is, liturgical time.
The opening words of this psalm may be translated, “Yahweh, He has become king!” In the sequence of events over a several-day festival, there was a dramatic climax that represented the Enthronement. Some ritual event occurred, in early times probably involving the appearance of the Ark. This ritual action, however done, represented the special moment of the Lord’s triumph over the powers of chaos and the restoration of peace and harmony (shalom). These enthronement psalms were sung – with much other shouting, horn blowing, and music making – at this climactic moment in God’s relation to the world and its peoples.
This was also supremely a moment of revelation, revelation to the world and the nations of both the fact of God’s rule and of the character of God’s rule:
Mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity;
you have executed justice
and righteousness in Jacob (verse 4, NRSV).
The supreme acclamation of a just God as sovereign over all of life is what these enthronement psalms bring.
Among enthronement psalms, only this one refers to specific historic figures, those of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel (verse 6). The familiar history of Israel’s early leaders is not usually mentioned in such high liturgical psalms. In this supreme example of such psalms, the old Israelite story and the glory of Zion are closely wedded!
II Corinthians 3:12-4:2.
In the Epistle reading Paul is doing his own midrash on Moses’ veil. As Paul reads the Torah passage, the glowing of Moses’ face gradually faded after he had spoken with God. Thus, says Paul, Moses put the veil on to prevent the Israelites from seeing that the glory had faded away.
More to the point, Paul relates Moses’ veil to the old law that was written on tablets of stone (mentioned just before, in the Exodus passage). The challenge of true religion – the “new” covenant – is how to get God’s will written on the hearts of people rather than on cold stone tablets. The way that happens, says Paul, is through the Spirit. In this passage, the Spirit (of God) and the Law are opposites; the Law condemns, the Spirit makes alive. Also, the face of Moses and the face of Jesus are opposites. By looking at the glory of God in Jesus’ face, one is taken up by the Spirit of God, “and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom [from the Law]” (verse 17, NRSV).
The climax is very loaded: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord [in Jesus’ face] as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image [of God, in which humans were originally created] from one degree of glory to another…” (verse 18).
Luke 9:28-36, (37-43).
Climaxing all these Biblical themes of beholding God’s glory, the Gospel reading presents Luke’s version of the Transfiguration. Matthew and Mark pretty much agree in how they tell this scene. Luke, however, has several variations in his way of telling it. (Even the Gospel According to John has something like the transfiguration, John 12:28-30.)
What the Gospel narratives have in common is that this is a special moment – different from the usual presence of Jesus to his disciples. This is a moment of supreme revelation. For a moment, the three selected disciples see Jesus in his true heavenly reality, a reality that is veiled from people during his earthly ministry. In that special moment of revelation Jesus is seen as a companion of Moses and Elijah, the greatest mediators of law and prophecy for the chosen people.
Such a vision is certainly one of “glory.” For the change in Jesus, Matthew and Mark use the special word “transfigured,” while Luke keeps it simpler: “the appearance of his face changed.” All agree that the robes of the heavenly figures became brilliantly white.
All three Gospels agree that the transfiguration comes at a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. The disciples have just recognized him as the Anointed One (Messiah), and he has just announced that, Special One of God though he is, he now has to go to Jerusalem to suffer, die, and rise from the dead.
The transfiguration is the moment of revealed glory before the humility and suffering become more intense.
But our reading also has Luke’s special variations on the common story. First, as often, Luke shows Jesus in prayer. He takes the three disciples up the mountain to pray. And it was while Jesus was praying that he was transformed, that his heavenly identity became transparent to those who believed in him.
Secondly, a very distinctive point in Luke, Moses and Elijah not only appear with Jesus, but we hear what they are talking about. “They … were speaking of his departure [exodos], which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (verse 31, NRSV).
More explicitly than others, Luke makes clear that there is a divine script for Jesus’ story. The script is written in heaven, and the great worthies who have passed on are able to read it. They can consult with their peer, or leader, about the enormous task he faces in order to carry out, as they did, his commission to labor and suffer for a dull and resistant people. For a brief moment, the glory is revealed before the Servant moves toward his cross.
The optional reading (verses 37-43) moves to events after descent from the mountain. A father brings his only son to be delivered from a demonic possession that seizes him periodically. The disciples cannot exorcise this demon; Jesus does.
The Luke version of this episode emphasizes the demonic violence. The desperate father reports, “Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not” (verses 39-40, NRSV). Then, when Jesus has asked them to bring the boy, “the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions” (verse 42). The demonic violence is worse here than in any other exorcism story.
We may guess that Luke has preserved all this detail about the demonic violence in order to show the reaction of the spirit world to the revelation of Jesus’ glory on the mountain – and the inevitable doom that Jesus’ going to Jerusalem means for the demons! Only Luke’s version of the Transfiguration includes a direct reference to the passion in Jerusalem, and only Luke’s version of the sequel leaps immediately to the story of the outburst of demonic frenzy among the people who follow Jesus.
The Jesus of heavenly glory, disguised for now as a humble servant on his way to Jerusalem, is a revelation that drives the demons crazy!