Day 11: Christian Transformation
Illustration: Juliana Crownover
He shone with glory…Such an experience seems to me to belong to the soul which loves what is beautiful. Hope always draws the soul from the beauty which is seen to what is beyond, always kindles the desire for the hidden through what is constantly perceived. Therefore, the ardent lover of beauty, although receiving what is always visible as an image of what he desires, longs to be filled with the very stamp of the archetype.[i]
Gregory of Nyssa (d. 395?), Life of Moses
Almighty and everlasting God, heavenly Father, who sees that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves, keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul, through Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.[ii]
Old Testament Lesson
Deuteronomy (which means “second law”) is a covenant renewal document. In it, Moses prepares the second generation of Israelites to fulfill the promises given to their fathers to go into the Promised Land. He does this by renewing the covenant their fathers made with God. The summary requirements of this covenant are primarily concerned with relationship: they’re to love God, to walk in His ways and cling to Him. If they do this, the second generation will inherit the land free from the scourge of the Canaanites. Note that the borders of this Promised Land are quite a bit larger than the political state of Israel today, as their territory would extend all the way to Iraq, thus mirroring the land borders promised to Abraham (Gen 15.18) and reaffirmed to Moses (Ex 23.31).[iii] The final ratification of this covenant would be made once the Jews entered into Canaan at the base of Mt. Gerizim and Ebal, where God originally made his covenant with Abraham (Gen 12.6), an event which took place under the leadership of Joshua (Josh 8.30-35).[iv]
22For if you will diligently keep all these commandments which I have commanded you to do, to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways and to cling to him, 23then the LORD will drive out all these nations from your midst with the result that you will dispossess nations greater and mightier than you. 24Every place that the sole of your foot traverses will belong to you — from the desert to Lebanon, and from the Euphrates River as far as the Mediterranean Sea – these will be your borders. 25No man will take a stand against you. The LORD your God will place dread and fear of you upon the surface of the whole land over which you traverse, just as He promised you.
26Look, I set before you today a blessing and a curse: 27the blessing will come if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God which I have commanded you today; but the curse will come if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God and you turn from the way I am commanding you today to go, especially if you go after other gods which you have not known before.
29But it will happen when the LORD your God brings you into the land which you will enter to take possession, then you will place the blessing upon Mt. Gerizim and the curse upon Mt. Ebal.
New Testament Lesson
This text tells the story of the Transfiguration. When Jesus ascends the mountain with Peter, James and John, there are two key pieces of background information to keep in mind. Many scholars believe this scene takes place right at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles. Tabernacles occurs in the six days after the Day of Atonement and is the key fall festival for the Jews. In it, they celebrate the fall harvest, give thanks for the work God has done in their midst during the year and look forward to their ultimate restoration at the return of the Messiah. This helps explain Peter’s response. He offers to build little huts because this is what one would do at the festival. The Israelites live in little huts for six days to remember what it was like to wander in the wilderness. Yet, when Jesus is transfigured and a cloud descends, we’re also supposed to remember Moses’ ascent to Mt. Sinai to receive the Law (the subject of our OT reading on Wednesday), which also occurs after six days. Thus Jesus is inaugurating the Messianic age and is fulfilling the Law. He is the true Torah, the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament.[v]
1Now, after six days, Jesus took along Peter and James and John, his brother, and ascended up a high mountain by themselves. 2And Jesus was transfigured in front of them and his face glowed like the sun and his garment became white as light. 3Then Moses and Elijah appeared, conversing with him. 4So Peter answered and said to Jesus: “Lord, it’s good for us to be here. If you want I’ll construct three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 5Now while he was still speaking, a cloud appeared, overshadowing them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him!”
6And when the disciples heard it they fell on their faces and were exceedingly afraid. 7Then Jesus came over, touched them and said, “Arise and don’t be afraid.” 8And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus. 9So, as they were descending from the mountain, Jesus commanded them to tell no one what they had seen until the Son of Man was raised from the dead.
- Imagine that you had known nothing but wandering around in the desert forty years. How would you react to promises of prosperity? Are you cynical about promises of spiritual prosperity today?
- As Christians, how do we fulfill the Law? Consider Mat 22.39, Gal 5.14 and Rom 13.10.
- Does it matter that Jesus “ascends” up a mountain for the Transfiguration? Re-read our OT text from Wednesday (Ex 24.12-18) and note the similarities between the two scenes.
- The typical reaction when someone is in the presence of God in the Bible is abject fear. Why is this? Is this how you approach God?
Reflection by Kevin Dodge (email)
We usually think of the Transfiguration as a story for the season of Epiphany, rather than Lent. Yet, in the culmination of a week in which we have been discussing what a covenant relationship with Jesus entails, we conclude with this very powerful scene that shows how Jesus fulfills some of the hope of the Old Covenant. Under the Old Covenant (as seen from our text in Deuteronomy), the hope was for a Promised Land where the people could live in peace. Their enemies would be put down, and they would inherit a land “flowing with milk and honey.” They would live with a holy God in their midst.
The Jews certainly experienced this for a time, but it didn’t last because their relationship with God didn’t last. Almost every generation found itself falling away from God and needing to seek renewal. God warned, cajoled and threatened, to no avail.
As noted above, when Jesus is transfigured, we are to remember typologically Moses on Mt. Sinai, receiving the Law. After six days, Moses entered the cloud, met with God and received the Torah, the instruction which governed how to be in a covenant relationship with God.
But something fundamentally different transpired with Jesus. After Moses met with God, his face would glow. The radiance came from the glory of God which was external to Moses. But, Jesus, when he was transfigured, manifested his own glory. He needed nothing from the outside to accomplish this. Thus Jesus shows us the glory resident within him when he is in intimate relation with the Father in prayer.
Jesus, as mediator of the New Covenant (Heb 9.15), is offering us something greater too. By the ascent up a mountain to the Transfiguration, Jesus shows that there is a spiritual dimension to what was promised before in the Old Testament. He’s offering, as John puts it, “to tabernacle among us” (John 1.14) in our hearts. The same glory that made Jesus’ and Moses’ face shine can be resident within our hearts if we abide with God through his Spirit. We end this week with the promise that God will be with us spiritually if we will walk with him. All of us as Christians get to participate with him in his glory.
But, how is this different from what Israel experienced before? There are several differences. One obvious difference mentioned before is that with the coming of the Spirit, we have an ongoing way to maintain our relationship with Christ. The second difference comes in the Christian Sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, which imparts the grace necessary to maintain this relationship. But the ultimate difference is the Church itself which teaches us, encourages us and helps us realize that we are all in this together. We have it better because our hopes are built on Christ, who left us with a better set of promises (Heb 8.6). This focus on the Church as the place where we live our relationship is something we’ll be exploring next week.
However, the problem, as we’re readily reminding ourselves in Lent, is that this spiritual life isn’t all that easy. We might want to walk with God, to keep his ways and his instructions. We might profess to want a deep and abiding relationship. But the reality is that here we are again, confessing that we’ve fallen short, confessing that we constantly mess up our priorities and constantly ignore the only one who can really satisfy us. In short, yet again, we’ve lost our first love (Rev 2.4).
But — guess what — the Israelites had done the same thing. Moses was renewing the covenant with the second generation because the first generation had become disgusted and wanted to turn back. They thought it would be better to be slaves in Egypt rather than pilgrims in the desert. This is what we have to avoid. We simply have to keep going. In a sense, the key to the spiritual life is simply to keep putting one foot in front of the other no matter how hard it gets.
We all suffer from the same sinful human condition. The only real difference between us and the Jews in Deuteronomy is the resources Christians have been given under the New Covenant to live the spiritual life. Robert Robinson’s hymn, “Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing” says it well:
O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.[vi]
God is not demanding perfection from us (remember what our lesson on Matthew 5.48 said about that last week on Friday). But he is asking us to evaluate ourselves, to check our motives and see if we can’t make some progress.
When the cloud overshadows Jesus and the disciples and the voice commands them to “Listen to Him,” this means that Jesus has become revelation itself, the true Torah.[vii] He’s the one who fulfills the Messianic hopes of the Feast of Tabernacles. He’s the lawgiver who gives us himself on the cross and insists that the Law was there merely as our tutor to lead us to Christ (Gal 3.24). He’s the only one who can truly satisfy the deepest desires of our hearts.
- Listen to God
Spend some time quietly listening to God. Find a quiet place, still your soul, ask God for the grace to hear His voice. Simply listen and see what he might be telling you to do. If our goal is union with Christ, how can you catch a glimpse of it here on earth?
[i] Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, ed. John Meyendorff (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 230–231, p. 114.
[ii] The Anglican Breviary, 448.
[iii] Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Holman, 1994), 214.
[iv] Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy 1-11, Anchor Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 451.
[v] Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), 315–316.
[vi] Episcopal Hymnal 1982 (New York, N.Y.: Church Publishing, 1985), 686.
[vii] Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, 316.