Wednesday, 14 February 2007

The transfiguration: Luke 9 28-36

The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is recorded in Mark and Matthew as well as in Luke, but Luke stamps his own mark on it by including much detail absent in the other gospels. To begin with he changes the time note at the beginning from six days to eight days. It has sometimes been suggested that Mark, and Matthew (presumably following him) had in mind the six days that the cloud of glory hung over Sinai when Moses received the ten commandments. Certainly it is extremely unusual for Mark to have been so precise about time. Is there then any significance in Luke changing from 6 to 8? Most commentators would suggest not; however the transfiguration - a word Luke seems studiously to avoid (again unlike Mark and Matthew) - is surely some sort of preparation for resurrection. Within the early church resurrection came to be associated with the 8th day. God created the world in 6 days and on the 7th rested. The resurrection took place on the 1st day of the week but in cosmic terms this was the day of new creation, the 8th and eternal day. Early Christian baptisteries were 8 sided to symbolise this. Now if Luke were making a point about this (the Day of the Lord is a very important theme in Luke's gospel) then it may well be that the mention of 6 days in Mark refers not so much to the 6 day presence of glory cloud on Sinai, as to the 6 days of creation: it was on the sixth day that human beings were created in God's image as the climax of God's work. In Mark's account Jesus transfigured appeared in dazzling radiance as the true Son of God: humanity in all its glory. Luke, perhaps with the benefit of Paul's theological insight, now puts a further gloss on Mark. The old Adam was created on the 6th day. Jesus, carrying all the weight of Adam’s sin, died on the 6th day. On the 8th day he rose from the dead as the new Adam. The glorified Jesus is not just man as God intended him to be, the climax of the old creation, but the first being of the new creation.

The second change Luke makes is more easily explained. Jesus takes Peter, John and James up the mountain to pray and it is while Jesus is praying that he is glorified. Thus through prayer Jesus has placed himself within the glorious presence of God. Perhaps Luke is making a point about prayer in general: that prayer lifts the believer into the heavenly places. And in his account it is not just Jesus who shines in glory but Moses and Elijah too, and his glory was not simply a white surpassing that of the finest washing powder (as in Mark) but the white of lightning. Luke also gives us the theme of his prayer: his exodus in Jerusalem.

Now that word exodus had packed within it a colossal theological punch. The whole history of the formation of the Jewish nation was tied up with the exodus from Egypt. A slave rabble were formed into a chosen people under the covenant of Sinai: the exodus lay at the root of their formation, the root of their liberty, the root of their law and informed their feasts. But the coming out of Jesus: his passage through death - personally carrying the curse of the first born - his rising - his own personal identification with Passover where unleavened bread stood in sign for his body, and his own blood was to be the seal on a new covenant: all this new exodus material was now going to be packed into that already redolent word.

Yet while the mysteries of the Christian faith were being revealed, the chosen disciples were so sleepy they missed its import. Luke is surely here preparing us for another hilltop prayer encounter, this time in Gethsemane, when once again the exodus of Jesus was on the agenda and once again the same three disciples missed the plot.

The three gospel accounts are all similar in that they all say that the disciples saw Moses and Elijah talking with the transfigured Jesus. They are often identified as representatives of law and prophets: but it is also relevant that they both received theophanies on Mount Sinai. Less attention is given to the association both had with the Passover: Moses as the instigator of the first Passover when the children of Israel left Egypt, and Elijah as the one for whose return a cup is left at the end. Luke's emphasis on the exodus of Jesus makes this association perhaps more poignant. In his resurrection glory on the mount of transfiguration Jesus appears with the representatives of the first and the last cups: alone among the gospel writers Luke quotes Jesus saying at the last supper, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood" tying Passover in with the covenant given on Sinai. Thus exodus, covenant, Passover and new creation all find allusion in Luke's subtle account.

Luke also follows Mark (and Matthew) in quoting Peter wishing to prolong the experience by building three booths to Moses, Elijah and Jesus. This could be an allusion to the Feast of Tabernacles - the great feast - which rolled the creation of the tabernacle in the wilderness into one with the harvesting booths of the first harvest in the promised land. Thus strangely the feast seemed to celebrate not only the wanderings of the Aramaeans but also their eventual arrival and settlement in a promised land. Jesus's rebuke showed his total dislike for the ossifying of faith in monuments: it was inappropriate to celebrate an exodus with the structures celebrating an arrival. All three gospels make clear that the glories of the revelation on the mountain are to held in tension with the struggles of discipleship in the plains.

At the high moment of their experience the disciples felt as if the whole shekinah glory of the unapproachable God was being let loose on their unprotected heads. That moment was too much for them but the revelation God affirmed the nature of Jesus by proclaiming him his Son, the Chosen One. The words echoed those spoken from heaven at his baptism. Just as it had been at the moment when Jesus descended into the waters of baptism - the sign of death and resurrection - that God said "Today I have fathered him" so in the poignancy of the moment as Jesus prepared for death God once again affirmed him as his son. For the disciples, too, a command: listen. On this occasion the vision was spectacular but the purpose of the vision was to make them listen even when what they saw might not be encouraging. Since the gospels were written for people who had never seen Jesus to hear about him the command to listen was an essential part of their story. But it was a command the disciples themselves were to ignore.


norman kember said...

I think the version used as a background to your blog should be referenced. The idea of exodus is not clear in NIV or Good News.

bobgardiner said...

The word exodus is in the Greek NT - usually translated departure.