Transfiguration Sunday, celebrated Feb. 15 this year, concludes the season after the Epiphany, which is all about light – stunning, shimmering, flickering, blazing, sparkling, illuminating and revealing.
God’s light has broken into the world in the person of Jesus, and we squint toward its brightness, seeking to perceive the profile of what we might become.
Our lectionary texts for Transfiguration Sunday reflect the mode of God’s self-disclosure in the world, wrapped in the cloak of unfathomable light.
Psalm 50 does not portray a gently beaming deity, which our postmodernity likes to domesticate.
God shines forth, but the imagery of “devouring fire” is linked to a beautiful and terrifying presence.
A psalm of judgment, it reminds us that our lives are lived before God, inescapably so.
“Before whom all hearts are open” means our lives are oriented toward our maker, and God knows when we live as if God were not. Forgetting God was, and is, the chief sin.
The epistle lesson (2 Corinthians 4:3-6) cautions the reader against being blinded by the “god of this world,” that is one of our own fashioning.
Having been flattened by a blaze of light, the Apostle Paul now recognizes that the same light of creation is bursting forth in the face of Jesus Christ.
The incarnational narrative now transforms the horizon of every human; we are also “fitting vehicles to bear the divine,” in the words of H. Wheeler Robinson. An earthen human can carry the light and presence of divinity.
And this leads us to the gospel narrative about transfiguration in Mark 9:2-9. The subject of great art, distinctive iconography and barn-burning sermons, this episode challenges and illumines God’s work among us.
The distance between heaven and earth is bridged in Jesus. His presence is the response to the prophet’s searing cry, “O that you would rend the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1).
This scene on the summit of Mount Tabor, the traditional site of the transfiguration, reveals something new to his disciples, who never come across as very quick in Mark’s Gospel.
The writer’s theological purpose in crafting this scene is to put Jesus in the larger historical landscape of Israel and God’s covenantal purpose. The heavens have been rent, and God is loose in the world in the form of Jesus.
Elijah and Moses appear, talking with Jesus. Both were associated with mountains, and when the disciples climbed the mountain of the transfiguration, they caught a glimpse of a different realm.
Where did they go? Did they enter or at least glimpse eternity, where God’s time is not bounded?
We do know that they got a sense of who Christ truly was, and they were dumbfounded, for they had beheld his glory.
They said not a word after the divine voice shut down Peter’s building project. Finally, they saw only Jesus.
Seeing him is the key to transfiguring human identity. We contemplate how he brings the glorious intention of God into the realm of human possibility; he lived as the “only normal human who ever lived,” in John Robinson’s words.
Christians recognize themselves as “unfinished people.” It “doth not yet appear what we shall be, but when he appears, we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2). What does this mean?
We are transfigured (inevitably changed) by the pattern or template, which claims our deepest attention; we become like what we regard so favorably.
If we want to come to the fullness of the unique human identity purposed for us, we must focus attention on God’s self-revealing in Christ and the ways he continues to shine through faithful sisters and brothers.
A long-time friend of mine who exhibited a heart of wisdom and transparent goodness was buried recently in Louisville, Kentucky. Her name was Martha Ruth, and she lived up to the reputation of both names.
I lived with her family in Jerusalem when I was 24, a second-year seminary student who went as a missionary to Israel – not quite sure whom to convert.
The one converted was me as I observed how Martha lived in East Jerusalem with her neighbors, her family and friends – both Jewish and Palestinian.
In the quotidian tasks of each day – doing laundry, working in the garden, going to market, tutoring and sewing – she connected in loving ways and offered faithful witness to the grace of the gospel.
Her love for Jesus and others was a transfiguring dynamic in her life, and now her works follow her.
We are called to become a living icon, a person transfigured by grace, which is what Martha Ruth was for me and many others. Our world needs such transformed persons more than ever.
It is simply too brutal to be without the light of God shining through those who will do the work of compassion and justice.
Molly T. Marshall is president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (CBTS) in Shawnee, Kansas. A version of this column first appeared on her blog, Trinitarian Soundings, and is used with permission. You can follow CBTS on Twitter @CBTSKansas.