Luke 9:28 – 36

Exodus 34:29-35, II Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2, Luke 9:28 – 36

THE TRANSFIGURATION

Three different accounts of Transfiguration.  Let’s look at the Transfiguration of Moses.  What is really going on?  Shall we take the veil as an historical fact, or did those who composed the account mean to speak in symbols?

Almost certainly the veil is a symbol, and not a factual account of actual events.  An account of actual events would mean little to us.  But God intends the Bible to be like a treasure map for spiritual prospectors.  So what is the pot of gold here, and why does the Bible speak in terms of a veil?

We call Moses’s experience a Transfiguration… but what exactly is a Transfiguration?  I figure it this way.  The Jewish theologian and philosopher, Martin Buber, wrote about two, contrasting forms of relationship: I-Thou and I-It.  In an I-Thou relationship, I see you as a whole, unified person.  I do not analyze you or evaluate you, I am just with you.  In fact, it’s as if you and I shared one “I”.  No thoughts or ideas of mine come between us.  You’ve had this experience.  Think of a time you were in a deep, intimate conversation.  If the other’s thoughts wandered, you felt it.  You knew the other had slipped out of the I-Thou relation and into the I-It relation.

The I-It relation sees the other as an object, and even sees itself as an object.  In the I-It relation I may analyze you and judge you.  Separateness and detachment characterize the I-It relation, like a good doctor with a patient.  In contrast, mutuality and reciprocity characterize an I-Thou relation, like intimate friends or lovers.  But note: there is nothing wrong with I-It.  We need I-It with its analytical powers to live in the world and conduct our lives.

When it comes to God, the I-Thou relationship shifts into a whole different register, as if we shifted from gazing at the moon to gazing at the sun.  Unlike the things of this world, God can never be investigated or examined… never be known as an object.  God can only be known as an absolute presence.  Think of the way a person who is totally blind knows when the sun comes out — a warm, embracing presence.

The Bible tells us repeatedly that Moses went up on the mountain to be with God.  It’s a way of saying that in order to be with God in an I-Thou way Moses had to rise above all the daily business that normally occupied his mind — all his duties, deliberations, decisions.  He had to set them aside and let God be his all-in-all.  To be in an I-Thou relation with God is not necessarily a Transfiguration, but when it reaches an essential degree of clarity or of openness, it is.

Think how it must have been for Moses when it was time to go back down, to tear himself away from the divine presence — away from knowing, as Julian of Norwich said, that “…[A]ll shall be well.  And all shall be well.  And all manner of things shall be exceedingly well.”  He was moving from one world to another.  He had to put his thinking mind back in gear, his analytical mind that he used to solve the problems of the community.  He had to go from I-Thou to I-It.

The veil stands for that transition, for once again putting on his thinking, problem-solving mind.  To be face-to-face with God he had to set aside that mind and simply, like a sunbather, bask in God’s presence.  Also, when he came back among the people, he needed to share with them the spiritual insights that God had given him.  These were I-Thou moments, and his face still shone.  But after that it was back to business as the CEO, and for this he needed the veil — his rational mind.

Jesus’ Transfiguration story is similar.  He was joined in his Transfiguration by Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets — the foundation stones of Judaism.  Perhaps this detail is meant to suggest that, for his followers, Jesus would be the third foundation stone of faith.

 

Paul, too, had an I-Thou experience.  He was on the road to Damascus, very much in the grip of his I-It mind.  He was using it to eradicate the Jesus movement from within his religion.  As he neared Damascus, a blinding light knocked him to the ground.  Jesus spoke to him out of that light, and Paul realized that he was face-to-face with the divine.  It took him three days before he was able to return to his I-It mind, to put on the veil, to direct affairs again.  Only now he was directing affairs in exactly the opposite direction.  He became one of Jesus’ disciples.

With this in mind, perhaps you are as puzzled as I am.  In the passage from Paul’s letters that we heard just now, why did Paul twist the story of Moses’s Transfiguration?  Why use it to belittle Judaism?  There was nothing in the Exodus account about the veil serving to hide the light of Moses’s face from the people.  Nothing about the glory of the Transfiguration being set aside in Moses.  Nothing about the veil serving as a symbol for a hardened, unreceptive mind.

Here is how I make sense of that passage.  Paul was a brilliant man, well schooled in his religion and a passionate advocate for Judaism as he understood it.  He had lived his whole life in the I-It mode, and done so very effectively.  He had no idea there was any other mode.  Then he had an I-Thou experience on his way to Damascus.  The difference astounded him.  Judaism, as he knew it, had not prepared him for Transfiguration and he thought there was something lacking in Judaism.

I’m not sure he was wrong.  The Christian religion is open to the same charge.  Doesn’t the Church make religion chiefly a matter of obedience to its teachings?  Is not sin a principal, if not paramount interest of Christianity as commonly understood?  Aren’t we taught to pray to a God “out there” or “up above” and to make our prayers into I-It prayers — that is, prayers to meet our needs and solve our problems?  If that is what our religion does for us, it is no wonder that people, especially young people, are leaving the Church.

And yet Paul was wrong. Think of Jesus.  Like Paul, Jesus grew up and lived within the Jewish religion.  Its teachings formed his thinking and his doing.  Judaism enabled his Transfiguration.  Afterwards, he felt no need to fault his religion, but like Moses, he shared with his followers what he had learned in those intense I-Thou encounters he had with God.  Judaism served Jesus well, and it can serve people today well, too.

Paul was also right when he continued by saying, “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….”  That is, we too can be in I-Thou relations with God and with each other.   We, too, can be candidates for Transfiguration: that is the pot for gold.

Paul is also right that I-It and I-Thou are not like two sides of a door — either you are in one place or in the other.  In other words, I-Thou has degrees.  Most of us have had an I-Thou experience.  One of the monks at Holy Cross Monastery gave me an example of I-Thou.  He said, it’s like sometimes you hang up from a phone call and you just sit there for a moment or two in a deep, deep peace.  He didn’t put it this way, but I would say that for a few moments and to some degree you are simply aware of dwelling in the divine presence.

Quoting Julian of Norwich again: after a prolonged and deep immersion in her own Transfiguration, she wrote, “For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the whole,  so are we, soul and body, clad in the Goodness of God, and enclosed.”  To be sure, Jesus experienced the Transfiguration to a supreme degree, but any of us can have at least a taste of the peace and joy of the I-Thou relation with God.  Communion is just such a taste.

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