Moses had to find a veil and pull it over his face, because his face was terrifyingly ablaze with the glory of God. The people couldn’t bear to look. He glowed with the wonder of his conversation on the mountain with God. For the people, this was just too much. They not only couldn’t stand to converse directly with God; they couldn’t bear even to see the reflection of God on the face of their leader. But when Moses went back up the mountain, and again began to converse with God, he took the veil off. God has no need of such things. God does not hold a veil over our faces, no, God is better known as the One who takes our faces into God’s hand, lovingly, the way a parent would draw a child’s face upward, holding onto the child just below the chin. And then God looks upon us, more frightening still, converses with us, and the terrible, wondrous, wrenching gleam of God’s glory blazes on our own faces. We shine. We radiate the light and the glory of God, we who are but dust and ashes. No frail attempt to hide can shade us from that light. No flimsy piece of fabric can veil us from this mystical connection with the divine.
We churchgoers have lots of fabrics, of many different kinds. We have white albs, surplices, copes, chasubles, dalmatics, tunicles, miters and maniples, amices and starched white collars, stoles and tippets, scarlet cassocks, cinctures, fascias, monstrance veils. (Our vestments have names as vivid and fine as their colors and fabrics!) But we don’t always know why we have such things.
Perhaps these textile trappings are veils, ways to vainly hold a length of cloth between us and the majesty of the One God’s presence, and to hide ourselves from our own identity, our own calling as the baptized children of God. If so, like our ancient forebears in the wilderness, we will fail in this attempt to hide. God finds us in the wilderness of our lives, draws us up onto the mountain, this mountain--the one with the Table of Eucharist, the Table of Thanksgiving, on the top. Here on this mountain, the prisoner is released; the ears of the poor hear abundant Good News; our badly broken hearts are mended; our foreheads are not just marked with ashes, but crowned with colorful garlands. To the frustration of our many veils and hiding places, we shine. And we are sent into the world to let this light shine before others.
When I was thirteen days old I wore a grand white gown sewn by my grandmother, a gown that has survived the near half-century since that day and has been worn by some of my nieces and nephews. Not a veil, this baptismal garment, no, like this alb I wear right now, that gown made for an infant is the shining vesture of the baptized. It is like the handsome suits and glittering dresses worn by children on Christmas Eve. It is like the flamboyant hats worn by ladies at traditional southern worship services, and maybe even like the playful fascinators worn by princesses at royal weddings (though here I might be stretching things a bit). But Paul did say this to the Galatians: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” So I believe we are free to be even a little playful in our exploration of what it means to shine with God’s glory, particularly now, at this time of the year, when we sing our alleluias for the last time in a while. Now, today, is a good time to contemplate the full depth of what it means to “clothe ourselves with Christ.”
Peter wants to stay on the mountain with the shining Jesus, whose light eclipses that of Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets. The three disciples had been asleep, but once they manage to shake off their fatigue, Peter’s instinct is to freeze this wondrous vision in time and place: he would use (once again!) flimsy fabrics to construct not veils, but a trio of camping tents, so that the glory of this moment could be captured and held still. I deeply sympathize with him, but this of course is folly: it is not what God’s glory is about, nor is it what the ministry of Jesus is about.
Peter missed two key details in the vision that had flooded his senses. First, he did not immediately understand what it meant that this dazzling revelation happened just after Jesus predicted his own passion and death, and—even more significantly—it happened while Jesus was praying. Prayer is a major theme in the Gospel according to Luke, and here on the mountain of Transfiguration, we see what happens when we pray as Jesus did, when we pray with sober understanding of what we must do as children of God. In short, when we pray, God reveals who we are. When we praise God and open ourselves to be instruments of God’s grace here on earth, we shine with God’s glory, yet we also take upon ourselves the cross of Jesus: we enter the fray. We carry before God the needs, concerns, and hopes of this world, and we commit ourselves to be ministers to our neighbors, as Jesus was, as Jesus is. And we are aware as we pray that Jesus did not just shine atop the mountain: he also shone upon the cross, praying even then for the forgiveness of his enemies.
The second thing that Peter didn’t immediately understand is closely related to the first: he didn’t grasp that the transfigured Jesus was conversing with Moses and Elijah not about glory, but about suffering and death. Jesus spoke to them about his departure, in Greek, his exodon, his exodus, upon the cross. (Moses and Elijah of course have their own stories of exodus, stories of liberation, of God pulling God’s people out of bondage into freedom.) And so, again, we learn that this blazing vision of glory is not a dazzling halftime show: it is about both death and resurrection. To follow Jesus on this path, we shine only in our self-giving love for our neighbor. We gleam with God’s glory only when we are joined with the suffering and death that surround us, and, amid that suffering and death, trust in the promise of exodus, the promise of resurrection.
St. Irenaeus, one of our earliest teachers in the Christian faith, says it this way: “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” Jesus stands fully alive on the mountaintop: both human and divine, he shows us what God is up to, right here, right now, in this room. When we are baptized, we clothe ourselves in Christ. Christ humbles himself to share in our humanity, and we come to share in his divinity. Christians in the East call this theosis, or divinization. For us, I think we can simply look around and within us and notice the beauty of the human spirit joined to God through Christ: our “glad array” of vestments, our “Sunday best,” our plush fabrics and vivid patterns adorn us as reminders that God clothes the poor in purple linens; God strings priceless pearls around the necks of the oppressed; God raises up the human person, mortal, prone to sickness, broken-hearted and despairing, scared and sad and alone, and God says, “you, yes you, are my chosen.” We are all caught up in this glorious exodus from our common human bondage in sorrow.
I will close with a verse from a grand hymn of St. Thomas Aquinas, a hymn that is sung around this Table. We gather around this Table in our “glad array,” that is, in our best baptismal clothing, and we are nourished as God’s people, fed and strengthened so that we can go out and serve the world in Jesus’ name. At this Table Thomas encourages us to sing:
“Full and clear sing out your praising,” Thomas writes.
“Sing gracious hymns of joy upraising,
in your heart and soul today;
for today the new oblation
of the new King’s revelation
bids us feast in glad array.”
Preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill, Alexandria, VA, Last Sunday after the Epiphany, March 3, 2019.
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Works cited or consulted:
Fred B. Craddock, “Luke,” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching.
Luke Timothy Johnson, “The Gospel of Luke,” in Daniel J. Herrington, S.J., ed., Sacra Pagina.
Thomas Aquinas, Lauda Sion Salvatorum, in The Episcopal Church, Hymnal 1982, hymn 320 (alt.).