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Epiphany Is for Lovers
February 15, 2015
A reading from the Gospel of Mark:
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
“Epiphany Is for Lovers” was prompted by the liturgical season of Epiphany, which ends today, or by the proximity of this Sunday to Valentine’s Day. In either case, love is not necessarily the title you would attach to the transfiguration story. More likely, words such as bizarre, strange, or inexplicable come to mind. The well-known writer and preacher Frederick Buechner noted that the transfiguration scene is “as strange a scene as there is in the Bible.” Typically, then, we approach this story with a mixture of skepticism and sober reverence. Apparently, though, that’s not how God approaches it. For God, the transfiguration is an opportunity for God to express delight in the one God calls “my beloved son.”
Now, one reason we don’t immediately associate the transfiguration with expressions of love and delight is that its context is rather sobering. The transfiguration of Jesus comes on the heels of his revelation that he would undergo great suffering, rejection, and death before rising again. Peter, of course, rebels against this unwanted turn of events. Peter had rightly identified Jesus as God’s Messiah, but he didn’t understand, and couldn’t accept, a suffering messiah. To this Jesus responds by calling upon all his followers to take up their cross, and give their lives as selflessly and as completely as he himself was doing. Given that Jesus had just made a prediction of his death and laid out the solemn requirements of discipleship, it may strike us as something of a leap to suggest that the transfiguration story qualifies as a kind of love note (Valentine Card?) from God.
And another possible objection to this idea is that we Presbyterians tend to reside more in our heads than in our hearts. When it comes to biblical interpretation, we’re more likely to use our intellect than to express our emotions. In our Reformed tradition, rationality is more highly valued than is aesthetics. Thus, when we hear a story like the transfiguration, we want to whip out the tools of historical and biblical criticism. We want to know how the context of this story fits into Mark’s larger narrative. We’re prone to explore its continuity with Old Testament theophanies, do a word study, examine how the story functioned in the life of the early church, and so on. I’m the first to say that all these intellectual tools are meant to be employed to their fullest. However, the intellect has its limits. By itself it can leave us viewing the story of the transfiguration with a raised eyebrow or perhaps with furrowed brow.
By contrast, if we assigned God a facial expression in response to the transfiguration of Jesus, it would not be a raised eyebrow or a furrowed brow, but rather a wide grin. After all, how can anyone talk of one’s ‘beloved” without breaking into a smile? Matthew’s account of the transfiguration has God saying, “This is my beloved son in whom I take delight.” The vocabulary that describes the transfiguration—beloved, splendor, delight—are the very words lovers use to talk to and about each other.
So what is it about Jesus that makes God smile? When we think about human love, we know that it is largely a matter of recognition. That is, when a person sees in another a reflection of himself or herself, he or she will be drawn to that other. Surely for just this reason, God takes delight in Jesus. God sees in Jesus a reflection of God’s self. Jesus’ willingness to suffer for others, to give himself completely, and face opposition without resorting to violence and retribution are expressions of God’s own self-giving nature. Isn’t the giving of self for the sake of the other exactly what takes place between lovers?
That’s why I’m suggesting that one approach to the transfiguration story is to read it as a love note from God. Recall that when the transfiguration occurs, Jesus and the disciple are about to set their feet toward Jerusalem and the cross. Their faith is going to be challenged, and the way ahead, they knew, would be difficult. Knowing this, God gives them a glimpse of transcendent glory, a vision of beauty and holiness that could help sustain them through the struggles that lay ahead.
We’ve all heard stories of soldiers who carried love notes in their pockets. When their situation became especially dreadful, they could put their hand on their pocket and remember that they were beloved. Well, the transfiguration was a kind of love note intended to reassure the disciples when they began to doubt and lose heart. It was a message expressing God’s delight, because in Jesus God’s way was being lived out. God’s love was being fully revealed.
The contemporary novelist, Mary Gordon, concludes an essay on the transfiguration with a story:
“I wandered once by chance into a Catholic Church in San Francisco, where the Mass was being said half in Chinese, and half in English. The priest, who was Chinese, preached the Transfiguration. ‘We don’t know whether this really happened,’ he said, ‘but if it did, it was one of those moments where the veil between the invisible and the visible is torn away.’ Then the priest spoke of a mentally handicapped man with whom he worked. When he asked the man if he prayed, the man said he did, and when he prayed, what he meant was that he listened. The priest asked what he heard. The man said, ‘I hear: “You are my beloved.’’’ The priest told the congregation, ‘This is what we should always be hearing.’”
Friends, it’s possible that the proximity of the transfiguration story to Valentine’s Day has skewed my homiletical sensibilities. On the other hand, lifting up our hearts to share in God’s delight– if even for a moment–is surely an appropriate response to the transfiguration. We all know how easy it is to become mired in bad news, discouraged by current events, and fearful as to what the future holds. Imagine, though, that in the midst of all that troubles and challenges us, God slips us a love note, a message saying, in effect: “You are my beloved, so do not fear, and do not lose heart. Love will win!” How delightful!