2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2
[A]ll 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.
- 2 Corinthians 3:18
This about does it, for this year’s extraordinarily long season of Epiphany. When Easter comes as late as it possibly can, it’s only possible to have two more Sundays in Epiphany than we’re having this year. This Sunday, the last Sunday of the season, is Transfiguration Sunday. Epiphany began with the visit of the magi to the child Jesus. Each Sunday since then, we have dealt with Scriptures and themes that speak to the ways God is “showing up” or manifest in our experience.
This past Sunday, we heard Jesus tell us disciples to “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36) Jesus tells us to love our enemies and to give freely to anyone who asks. As I hear this, I think, Wow! If we humans actually treated each other with such godly mercy, we would really see God “showing up” among us. If we actually did this, we would truly manifest the presence of God. But immediately I also think, This would take a major miracle.
The Transfiguration story, which we will hear this Sunday from Luke’s gospel, shows us Jesus praying on a mountaintop, glowing with heavenly light. The greatest of the prophets, Moses the Lawgiver and Elijah, appear and talk to Jesus. Then we hear once again the Voice that spoke at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, My Chosen; listen to him!” [Some ancient versions say “My Beloved” rather than “My Chosen.” ]
Matthew, Mark, and Luke report that Jesus’ disciples were terrified by this experience. Matthew and Mark tell how Jesus’ disciple Peter began running off at the mouth because he was so frightened. Matthew says that Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” So we see that the experience of Jesus in all his supernatural brilliance is not a tame thing: it frightens humans to witness it.
Like the bright star over Bethlehem that attracted the magi, the glowing Transfiguration scene shows us Who God is: Jesus. When we get into the nitty-gritty of these two stories, though, we find a lot of ugly, human realities in the shadows around all that brilliant light.
In the story of the magi, remember that the strange foreigners we call “the wise men” came asking for “the king of the Jews” at Jerusalem, which triggered wicked old King Herod to plot the death of all the little boys. And the angels had to warn the magi and Joseph to get out of town without informing King Herod. So Jesus and his family became refugees, crossing the border to escape. What we have here is God’s brilliance showing up in a dark and murderous mess. The brightness of Jesus and the dark background are both very real.
In the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration on the mountaintop, notice that it occurs very soon after Jesus told his disciples that he was turning to go to Jerusalem, where he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And then Jesus told them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:22-23). After hearing this— and trying to imagine what on earth Jesus might mean by those dramatic, foreboding words— then the disciples go up the mountain to see Jesus revealed in supernatural glory. And then they troop back down the mountain to face difficulties, negativity, failures, and eventually Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion at Jerusalem. Valleys of gloom and grit, with one bright peak between them!
One lesson I draw from the season of Epiphany is that ours is a very dark world indeed, where the light of God is manifest in ways that surprise or shock us humans. Even when God’s light shines very bright, the shadows are still scary. But God keeps on showing up.
The hardest lesson of Epiphany is that God wants you and me, as disciples of Jesus, to be light in this too-often-gloomy world. Thank God, He gives us the light.
Since it is by God's mercy
that we are engaged in this ministry,
we do not lose heart.
- 2 Corinthians 4:1