Returning to this episode in the gospels reminds me that I’ve now been preaching weekly (and perhaps weakly) for more than a calendar year, an experience that I do not regret, even as it comes to a close. Because the Transfiguration is one of those set pieces in my mind (I could tell you how the nativity and the crucifixion and the resurrection differ from gospel to gospel, but I couldn’t tell you how the transfiguration varies from book to book), for the first time I feel like I’m preaching a second sermon on a singular text. Perhaps for that reason (though I’ve got literary reasons as well), I’m taking on the Transfiguration proper, plus the following episode, in Sunday’s sermon, carrying me from Luke 9:28 all the way to Luke 9:45.
I remember well teaching the first chapter of Robert Alter’s book The Art of Biblical Narrative in my Hebrew Bible and/as Literature class at the University of Georgia. What stands out, every time I taught it (there were six sections of the course over three years), was the relief that Alter seemed to give my Christian students. I repeated his refrain (paraphrased here–go find a used copy of his book; you won’t regret it) often as we worked our way through some challenging texts: the best religious content of the Bible only becomes visible with attention to the literary details. Certainly Luke and Acts reward an eye for detail, and the Transfiguration story offers several occasions for close attention. The one that caught my eye this time around is the description of Peter’s and John’s and James’s entry into the scene. Jesus is standing (NOT hovering in midair) with Elijah and Moses about what is to come, but in 9:32, the disciples only see what’s going on because they’re “awake.” In the course of the narrative that obviously has a literal referent, but it also echoes parables and warnings, the sorts of echoes that render their participation in the moment theologically rich. In this genuinely apocalyptic moment (other worlds? check. other times? check.), Peter and James and John manage to receive the gift that God gives.
When the oft-painted scene ends, however, the wakefulness proves to be a rare blessing. When the townsman’s “only child” (an intentional return, I think, to the “this is my son” that the voice-from-the-cloud speaks concerning Jesus) remains oppressed by the unclean spirit, Jesus utters the prophetic “How long?” not in response to the oppression alone but to his own apostles’ incapacity to speak with the authority that he has extended to them. Once again the echoes of the Old Testament are hard to deny: Jesus encounters the faithlessness of his own disciples and the townspeople to whom they attempt to minister when he is coming down from the mountain (9:37), and although there is no literal golden calf to greet him, I have to read the verses to follow as an indictment of some sort of idolatry, the kind that doesn’t come in bovine form but in the ideologies of Messiah.
As the people stand astonished at yet another exorcism, Jesus speaks his radical departure from the Davidic and Danielic hopes of Israel: the Son of Man is to be handed over into the hands of men. To someone familiar with Daniel 7, that’s the most devastating, dangerous, defeatist thing that a would-be prophet could ever say. The Son of Man is to ascend on a cloud to the Ancient of Days, bringing to YHWH the cries of the people for justice. And when the Ancient of Days speaks justice in the world, the Son of Man is the harbinger of good news. Jesus takes what should, in the minds of the people, be a story of Israel’s triumph and puts a twist on it that Israel can neither fathom or stomach: when divine justice is proclaimed to the chosen faithful, they will destroy him.
So the Transfiguration never ends with the metamorphosis of the Rabbi or even with the voice commanding the disciples to hear him. That revelation of glory serves to heighten the horror of the moment when the wretchedness of humanity takes the good word of the prophets and seizes the occasion to murder the one sent by God. The glory of Jesus on the mountain can never nullify the crime of the crucifixion, but neither does the cross dispel the glory. Instead, that contradiction of images, the divine prophet and Son of God destroyed by the sins and ambitions and fears of the powerful, serves to remind the faithful that the Bible responds to the contradictions in our own journeys with the grandest of contradictions, the victim-Messiah, the suffering servant, the Christ crucified. Nothing can prepare us for the tension, and so we receive, always, a gift from God.