Sun, Feb 23, 2020

Transfigured tradition(s)


According to Olga Werby––

a cognitive theorist at the University of California, Berkeley…

and a novelist––

“By telling each other stories, we recreate ourselves over and over again. Where do we come from? Where are we going? Who are our heroes? Who are the villains? These stories pass our values as a society from one generation to the next. It’s how we understand each other”

The power of story-telling––

it plays not just a central role in our society but in every society. 

We use stories or shared narratives––

in the form of foundational myths, fables, histories, and morality tales––

in order to build community.

And the more that those stories engage our imaginations and our emotions…

the more that they tap into our hopes and our dreams…

or, conversely, the more that they disorient or disturb us––

forcing us to re-examine and re-think––

the more powerful and more effective those stories are.


And, in our reading from Matthew’s Gospel this morning, we have such a story––

a powerfully evocative story––

the story of the Transfiguration.

It’s a story that is found, with some variation, in all three of the Synoptic Gospels––

in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

It’s clearly an imaginative or mythic story––

drawing heavily on Sinai symbolism from the Old Testament.

It’s the product of early Christian reflection and tradition––

not an actual event in the life of the historical Jesus.

And yet, more often than not… 

it’s been understood as offering us a glimpse into the true nature of Jesus;

that is, it’s seen as offering us a glimpse into his divine nature––

as a sort of post-Easter projection back into the narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry.


But is it?


As I have suggested before with some other well-known Biblical stories–– 

we need to look at this story again as story.


Towards the end of Matthew’s version of the story… 

the author describes it as a “vision”––

in other words, he understands it as a mystical experience––

one that came to the inner circle of disciples while they were in an alternate state of consciousness.

Ancient people believed that such states––

visions, trances, revelatory experiences––

could occur under certain conditions of sensory deprivation…

and, in these alternate states of consciousness… 

the boundary between heaven and earth effectively collapsed…

such that they were able to glimpse divine realities.

As the author describes it…

in the disciples’ visionary experience, Jesus’ appearance changed dramatically.

His face began to shine very brightly.

So did his clothing.

Indeed, the terms used couldn’t have been more hyperbolic…

“his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white”.

And yet, in a sense, that’s almost mentioned in passing.

It’s certainly not the focus of the narrative.

And, within the story itself, it doesn’t seem to have had any impact on the three disciples.

Indeed, they don’t react to it at all.

There’s nothing mentioned about their amazement or wonder––

and certainly nothing said about terror or awe.

Quite literally, it’s as if they didn’t even notice it.

Then, we’re told, suddenly they saw two other figures…

whom they “recognised” as Moses and Elijah.

And that’s when the disciples got excited.

Peter called out to Jesus––

apparently completely unperturbed by Jesus’ dramatic appearance––

announcing that he was willing to pull together some branches… 

and make some rough humpies…

in an effort to try to prolong the experience…

in order to keep Moses and Elijah there so that they could talk.

The focus of the disciples in Matthew’s story is not on Jesus;

and they’re certainly not having some extraordinary revelatory experience concerning Jesus––

such that they glimpsed his “divine” nature.

Rather, their focus is entirely on Moses and Elijah.

And why not?

After all, they were, arguably, the two greatest figures from Hebrew history.

Moses was revered as the giver of the Law;

and Elijah as the first and the greatest of the Prophets.

These two were, in a real sense, the very foundation of their whole religious and spiritual tradition.

Why wouldn’t they want them to stay?

Why wouldn’t they want to hold onto this experience?

Vividly, powerfully, they were being swept back in time…

transported to the “good old days”…

effectively, re-connecting with their spiritual roots.

There was so much that they would have wanted to ask;

so much that they could learn from them;

so much that they could understand––

if only they had a chance to spend more time with them.

But, in that instant, they were overshadowed by a cloud––

a bright cloud––

and they heard a voice from the cloud.

Together, these are powerful symbols of theophany––

that is, traditional Hebrew images used to indicate God’s ‘physical’ presence––

and, with that, the disciples fell to the ground with reverential awe.

And the voice––

recalling the words that were spoken at Jesus’ baptism–– 


“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased”.

But the author added to that an important final clause–– 

“listen to him”.

Then the whole vision disappeared… 

and the disciples snapped out of their alternate state of consciousness.


In the author’s crafting of his Transfiguration story…

the three disciples were enthralled by their vision of Moses and Elijah.

Through it, they were connecting with their religious tradition––

with their spiritual roots––

and, indeed, with their whole sense of identity as Israelites and as people of God.

In so doing they were, in a sense, trying to cling to the past.

And yet, the story is seemingly trying to say that that was not where God was to be found.


the living God––

doesn’t stand still.


the living God––

is not stuck in some time-warp…

nor constrained by any historical formulations or religious traditions…

even ones that have been meaningful in the past.

Rather, they were to listen to Jesus––

and to all that he had to teach them––

about love and justice…

compassion and hope…

forgiveness and grace…

mercy and inclusion…

and about life overcoming death and all that is life-denying.

And the story is suggesting that…

if we are nostalgically clinging to the past…

we can easily miss how, and where, and through whom God is at work now.


Furthermore, according to the sociologist, Phil Zuckerman: 

“People look at the content of their religious tradition––its teachings, its creeds, its prophet’s proclamations––and they basically pick and choose what suits their own secular outlook. They see in their faith what they want to see”.

And don’t we see that, all of the time––

whether it be fundamentalists…



or even liberal-progressives;

we all cling to our experiences, our traditions, and our paradigms like barnacles.

But, perhaps, what Matthew’s story of the Transfiguration is trying to say to us is:

whenever we become closed to certain possibilities…

whenever we think that we know what God is like…

whenever we rest confidently in our religious traditions…

then God has a nasty habit of disturbing our nostalgia… 

shaking our complacency…

challenging our blindness…

and forcing us to confront, again, “the ever-becoming” nature of God…

whom we encounter––

not just in mountain-top visions…

but in the plain light of day.

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