John Shea, in his book Starlight: Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long, tells a story about being at a Christmas party and realizing that it is impossible to return to the world as we know it after casually wandering up to the mantel and seeing the nativity scene. Knowing that the Word became flesh and dwells among us is, or at least should be, life-altering. Emmanuel, God with us, is not only a theological statement, but a truth that changed forever how we are to look at one another and ourselves. The knowledge that God is now not only one of us, but one of the smallest and most vulnerable, certainly must stir us to act, to care, and to show mercy for the those who live in fear and on the margins of our society.
The Church in her wisdom, recognizing that these mysteries that we celebrate and remember in the Nativity of Our Lord, are so great and so unfathomable that it is far too much for the faithful to take in all at once, gives us an entire season to unpack and prayerfully penetrate the mystery unveiled that great day when God chose to become one of us, and one with us. This practice began in the early church, when the newly baptized were helped to understand and appreciate the rituals and symbols of their initiation. This time of mystagogy, of exploration and understanding, not only has become a way to understand the mysteries of our baptismal covenant but also is a helpful way for us to grow and deepen our understanding of the ongoing manifestation of the sacred in our lives. Kathleen Hughes RSCJ, in her book Saying Amen: A Mystagogy of Sacrament, says this: “In liturgy as in life, one thing regularly leads to another: understanding leads to loving, loving to participation, participation to commitment, and commitment to a reformed way of living.
Today marks the close of one such season, the Sundays After the Epiphany — a season ripe with stories that help us continue to build up the reign of God now in our midst, but not fully realized. God made manifest. The word manifest is both an adjective and a verb. As an adjective, it means “clear or obvious to the eye or mind”; as a verb, it is “to display or show (a quality or feeling) by one’s acts or appearances.”
For the past several weeks, we have been spending time with biblical stories that draw us in and ever closer to this God Made Manifest. Right out of the gate, on the shores of the River Jordan, we heard a voice coming from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased.”
Week Two, as Jesus gathers around him followers to share the mission, all of whom are amazed at how he seemed to know them as he issued the invitation to follow, Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
The stories continue, more are called, and more follow without question. Demons are cast out, and loved ones are healed.
That brings us to today, the Last Sunday after the Epiphany and perhaps one of the most powerful moments in the ongoing manifestation of God in our midst: the story of the Transfiguration. In the gospel of Mark, this story appears about halfway in Jesus ministry, and several scripture scholars suggest that it is indeed a turning point. After this story, Jesus begins his journey back to Jerusalem, where he will eventually be crucified and die – a journey we will enter with him next week as we begin the Season of Lent.
This story appears as the climax of Jesus’ ministry in all the synoptic gospels and is relatively similar in all of them. This suggests that it had great importance for the early community as they began to codify their understanding of who they were as a Christian community and their understanding of both Jesus Christ and the one he called Abba.,
Today we hear that Jesus takes Peter, James, and John and leads them up a high mountain. This is our first clue that something big is going to happen, for throughout the Bible, often when God is encountered, it is on the mountain-top. It is here that Jesus is transfigured. The Greek word used is metamorphoo, commonly known in English as metamorphosis. Greek scholars suggest that the best way to understand this is a change that occurs from the inside out. Many Bible scholars, including St. John of Damascus, a 7th-century Doctor of the Church, suggest that what occurred in the transfiguration was not as much of a change in Jesus but an unveiling of the union of God and human in the person of Jesus. For the first time, we see what until now has only been spoken of in angel song, whispers, and voices in the clouds.
Jean Corbon, in his book The Wellspring of Worship, when describing the Transfiguration writes: “The divine energy no longer acts alone but in the body of Christ, acts in synergy with a man [a human]; that is why Jesus is the great sacrament”. Therefore, “it is always in his body that the Word “comes” to save”.
For the first time, the disciples see what is at the heart of Jesus, unity with God. Furthermore, Corbon suggests that the most significant change in the story has been considered not that of Jesus, but that of the disciples, for it was their eyes that were opened, their hearts set on fire, their lives changed forever.
I find it interesting that the same Greek word for transformation (metamorphosis), and the understanding being unveiled in the story of the Transfiguration, also appears in 2nd Corinthians, Chapter 3, verse 18: “And 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; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” To paraphrase our recessional song: “God in [man] is made manifest.”
After spending some time with the gospel for today, with fingers crossed, as we look to the end of this pandemic and the day when we might unveil from these masks possibly in sight, I find myself questioning, “What will people see when we are finally able to unveil our faces once again? What metamorphosis is in store for us? What is waiting deep inside of our hearts waiting to be transformed from the inside out? Will we have the courage to let ourselves be unveiled and to allow the presence of God that dwells deep within to be revealed?
Just as I am sure, for Jesus on that mountain-top, it took great courage to be that vulnerable with those closest to him – those who one day would deny him and abandon him – it will also take great courage for us as well to be vulnerable and unveiled, allowing the glory of God to shine in and through us.
Moreover, what might be blocking us from seeing the beauty of God transforming those around us? What evils in our society and world still exist that keep people from feeling safe to embrace this metamorphosis and allow the Glory of God to shine through them?
How tragic that systemic racism and violence against our black and brown brothers and sisters will block many from feeling safe to be able to fully let the glory of God shine through them! The rise in xenophobia and violence against Asian Americans further veils our eyes from seeing the glory of God shining through them. Last week, Stephen reminded us of the sin of white privilege and patriarchy and how it blocks many from seeing the glory of God shining through women.
When I moved to Chicago almost 30 years ago, I had the great honour and delight to work with a Gospel choir on the near south side of Chicago. One of my favorite songs to sing with them was “This Little Light of Mine.” Even though there were only 20 or so folks in the choir and the church sat around a thousand, when they sang that song, it was as if I were on the mountain-top and the metamorphosis were in full swing. Not only in their voices! I swear I could see the Glory of God on their faces and in their bodies, as they swayed in time to the gospel beat. Today my prayer is that, as we remember the Transfiguration of Jesus, we will have the courage to embrace our own transfiguration, our own unveiling, as we take the light and “Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!”