Image: The transfiguration of Jesus – David Wojkowicz
There is text -an unchanging communication across time. Then there is context – the unpredictable – everchanging space in which the unchanging text with its timeless message is heard. Text and context. In Biblical interpretation, it’s context which carries the greater weight in fashioning meaning.
Our journey through the liturgical year brings us once again to the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain. For Mark, Matthew, and Luke the Transfiguration is the narrative midpoint in the transition between Jesus’ Galilean ministry and taking the road to Jerusalem and the cross. It’s interesting that we are offered a glimpse – midway so to speak – of the end of the story. For the Transfiguration is a foretaste of the resurrection.
For most preachers, the trouble with events like the Transfiguration is that we’ve preached on it so many times before – can there be anything new to say about it? I often ask myself what’s wrong with repeating previous messages? Don’t we preachers do it all the time. In fact, some preachers will have their Transfiguration sermon. They will wheel it out year after year in the sure and certain knowledge that congregations hardly ever remember what they said last week, let alone a year ago. But we all know that things are different at St Martin’s.
The thing is though, even though the text is unchanging, it sounds differently in 2022 which is not 2021, or 2012, or 2002.
This year we hear the readings for the last Sunday before Lent sounding within the unique context of the present time – through which – if we are observant – new aspects – previously unnoticed -will speak to us.
We can’t ignore the fact that today we revisit the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain in the context of profound shock. We are sick at heart – hearts aching in solidarity with the Ukrainian people. We are all devastated by the actuality of a Russian invasion of Ukraine – the ultimate action of a megalomanic mind.
It’s not just the horror of the event but the terror in realizing that such a thing is possible in 21st-century Europe. Our distress is amplified by our seeming helplessness to do anything about it. Sanctions, esp. the ones with the greatest effect will also exact a price from us. Our willingness to make sacrifices in support of principles of peace and democracy – will be the true indication of our moral courage.
The significance of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is huge and its game changing implications will reshape us all for years to come. It strikes at our shared assumptions forged from lessons learned amidst the ruins of two world wars.
As I wrote in E-News two weeks ago, the tensions between Russia and the North Atlantic Alliance resulting from Putin’s grievances over Ukraine evoke painful memories of 1938 and the Munich Conference. Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier, the respective prime ministers of Britain and France, aware that neither nation had any appetite for another conflict with Germany so soon after the last Great War, allowed the veil called peace at any price to fall across their minds and shroud their hearts. Longing for peace, but unwilling to defend it – they agreed to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in a hope of assuaging Hitler’s unassuageable sense of national historical grievance. We remember the chain of events that this appeasement of tyranny ultimately set in motion.
When faced with an autocrat’s ruthless narcissism- the lesson we keep having to relearn is that appeasement never works. We know this at the interpersonal level. As a nation we are daily reminded as sections of the most narcissistic generation (boomers) remain enthralled to a ruthless narcissistic former leader. So it is also at the level of relations between nations. Appeasement never works. You can only delay but not avoid the inevitability of conflict when faced with a ruthless narcissistic personality for whom enough is never enough.
Putin’s annexation of the Crimea and the Donbas amply demonstrate the point. Now, having failed to halt his advance at the gates of Kiev, we may yet find ourselves having to eventually do so at the gates of Vilnius, Riga, and Warsaw.
In 2022, the the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain sounds into a rapidly shifting context – for our future is reshaping as I write-speak.
Changing context opens us to hear different emphases in familiar stories. In previous years my attention in this story has always gravitated towards the mystical and psychological aspects of transcendent experience – that which Abraham Maslow referred to as peak experience in his hierarchy of needs. In the light of the Ukrainian Crisis the veil with which Moses hid the illumination of the divine energy from the people becomes the aspect of the story, that holds my attention.
Veils cloud vision!
It’s no surprise that the Transfiguration narrative draws a straight line to the Exodus story of Moses receiving the tablets of the law on the mountain top. We are intended to notice the similarity in the two stories. Luke is not alone in placing both Moses and Elijah on the mountain with Jesus, although it’s only in Luke that Jesus converses with them.
Within the story the veil functions at different levels.
- There is the physical veil used by Moses to hide the glory of the Lord still present on his face from being seen by the people. After his face-to-face encounter infusing him with divine energy, Moses must place a veil over his face to dim its otherwise blinding brightness – until that is – the divine voltage dissipates in him.
- But it’s Paul writing of the spiritual veil in his second letter to the Corinthians that speaks so loudly to me this year. Paul notes how the veil across Moses’ face continues to obscure direct human experience of the divine energy revealed in Christ. The spiritual veil allows us to use spirituality to hide from the reality of God’s reign of justice and peace – something I suggest influenced Chamberlain and Daladier at Munich in 1938.
In 2 Cor. 3:12-4:2 Paul is highly critical of the conventional Jewish reading of the Exodus story. He expresses the pain he feels – as a fellow Jew – at his nation’s rejection of Jesus as the fulfilment of God’s dream for Israel. He likens their rejection to their minds obscured by the same veil which Moses used to obscure the divine brightness from them. Paul is clearly also remembering how this same veil once clouded his mind leading him to persecute the Jewish followers of Jesus. This memory is intense and personal – remembering how on the Damascus Road, this veil was torn from his eyes leaving him temporarily blinded by his encounter with the divine energy.
At St Martin’s we omitted verses 14-16. Some might suggest my motive here is to protect Paul from the accusation of anti-semitism. Reading anti-semitism into N. T. texts remains something of a controversial issue among biblical commentators – but that debate is for another time. We are omitting these verses not because they imply Paul’s anti-semitism but because they risk validating ours. Whatever Paul’s intention, we can only hear him through the lens of our context – one shaped by the subsequent centuries of Christian antisemitism. Whether we are personally conscious of it or not – culturally, antisemitism remains a veil – concealing from us the very experience Paul longs for the followers of Jesus to have – which is he writes:
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.
This is the freedom of those whose minds are no longer clouded by the veil that obscures from them the realization that our differences are not abolished but become reconciled in Christ.
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York, historically the two most venerable Primates in the Anglican Communion, have written a prayer for Ukraine which we will use as our Eucharistic intention. In the name of the Prince of Peace they ask us to pray for the people of Ukraine, for peace and the laying down of weapons, along with prayer for all whose lives will be changed or destroyed in this avoidable conflict. But what their prayer does not address and maybe it cannot address is that while peace remains the hope of the holy, what are we to do when peace comes under attack?
On this Transfiguration Sunday, the Sunday before we begin Lent’s penitential season, it is the spiritual veil that insulates us from an encounter with the searing energy of the holy that should focus our attention as we reflect upon the meaning of Jesus’ transfiguration.
Jesus is the Prince of Peace, but the reign of peace – while a holy hope is not the default of this world. God’s peace comes only when we, as God’s agents in this world -with unveiled faces behold the glory of the Lord reflected in the world about us – are willing to stand firm in the cause of peace and when called upon -to pay the price of its defense.