Transfiguration — Glowing Faces

The recent release of the movie, Oppenheimer, has grabbed a lot of press and attention. It features J. Robert Oppenheimer who helped to develop the atomic bomb. It’s a sad irony of history that the first test of a nuclear weapon was code-named Trinity. According to Oppenheimer, the name was chosen from a poem by the Anglican priest and poet, John Donne. Why mass destructive power was so named after the triune God of Christianity remains a mystery.  

To my mind, even more unhappily, the first use of the weapon in war was just a few weeks later at Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. August 6 is the Feast of the Transfiguration. Peoples’ faces glowing with radioactive shinning is as far from the meaning of the Prince of Peace as one can get. And yet, history is what it is. We may wish it was different, some may try to whitewash it, but the dark corners of the past are – they just are. 

Those of us who spend a lot of time in church have heard Luke’s story of the Transfiguration so often that we may think of it as a public event. According to Luke, it was not. Only three other people were there. Although it wasn’t an episode witnessed by the masses, Luke is concerned with epiphany, with meaning.

The story begins with Jesus’ desire to pray. But he didn’t want to pray alone, so he took Peter, James and John with him to the top of “the” mountain. Why “the” mountain instead of “a” mountain? Maybe because it was the mountain with which they were all familiar, the mountain Jesus always chose when he was in the area. Or maybe it was because every mountain, no matter where it was, was a ringer for the mountain that towered so large in the Hebrew imagination. Once the people of Israel had seen Mount Sinai smoking with the presence of the Lord, there were no “a” mountains anymore. Every mountain was “the” mountain, the place where the fiery God might be encountered again.

While Jesus was praying, he caught fire from within. His face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Then, in the circle of light, two other figures appeared — Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet — dead heroes of the past — alive in the present, as if time were nothing but a veil to be parted and stepped through.

“They appeared in glory,” Luke tells us, which is to say that they appeared inside a sphere of light. That light had given them their lives, and yet the topic of their conversation that day was death — Jesus’ death. But they didn’t use the word “death” for what was about to happen, and they didn’t speak of it as something that would happen to him. They used the word “exodus,” translated here as “departure,” and they spoke of it as something he would accomplish.

With Moses standing right there, the parallel was hard to miss. Jesus, like Moses before him, was about to set God’s people free, only it wasn’t bondage to pharaoh they needed freeing from this time. It was bondage to their own fear of sin and death, which crippled them far worse than leg chains ever had. Whenever they got too brave and outspoken, all someone had to do was threaten them, and they’d go back to being good slaves again, minding their own business and forgetting who they were. So God had planned another exodus for them — in Jerusalem this time — where the Red Sea of death would be split with a cross and Jesus would lead his people through.

A key to understanding this moment of Transfiguration comes from the Exodus account that was read as our first lesson — of Moses up on Sinai where he encountered God’s glory – such that when he returned to the Hebrew people at the foot of the mountain his face still glowed so brightly that he had to wear a veil to keep from blinding them all. 

Just a few verses before this, in Exodus 33, is this important illumination:

18Moses said, ‘Show me your glory, I pray.’ 19And God said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “The LORD”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20But,’ God said, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ 21And the LORD continued, ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.’

When Moses prayed to see God, he saw God only indirectly. We – even when we’re Moses – never see God face to face. We only see God’s back, the Hebrew literally means backside. We see where God has been, we detect that God has been here but has already moved on, out ahead, and we only see God going away. When Peter, James, and John see the vision of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah – like the Hebrew people before them – they see only the left over glow of the faces of those who have encountered God.

How often do we, like Moses, cry out to God, “Show me your glory?” Show me that you haven’t abandoned me. How often do we pray like Peter, “Jesus, just camp out with me right here, make your dwelling with me? Be my personal savior and Lord.” “Lord, show me your face.”

We can pray to see God, but chances are that we’ll see God only in an oblique way, because this is how God chooses to be revealed to us. 

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says that he’ll be found in the most vulnerable among us: the hungry and the homeless, prisoners, those without clothes, the hungry, and those who are sick. No one notices that it’s Jesus until after the fact. Luke reminds us that Jesus appeared as a stranger along the Emmaus road, and that it was only after hospitality was extended to him that he was revealed in the breaking of bread as the living Christ. 

No one can predict how God will come to you – how God will answer your prayer. But throughout Scripture one thing appears certain: the appearance of God comes with a purpose that serves others. For Moses it was the giving of the Ten Commandments that shaped a community; for Jesus it was leaving the mountaintop and heading down into the valley below and on to Jerusalem. For Peter, James, and John it was lives of service and devotion. 

An anonymous author wrote the following:

         The man whispered, “God, speak to me.”

         And a meadowlark sang. But the man did not hear. 

         So the man yelled, “God, speak to me!”

         Thunder rolled across the sky. But the man did not listen. 

         The man looked around and said, “God, let me see you.”

         A star shone brightly. But he noticed it not. 

         And the man shouted, “God, show me a miracle.”

         And a life was born. But the man was unaware. 

         So, the man cried out in despair, “Touch me, God, and let me know that you are


         Whereupon God reached down and touched the man.

         But the man brushed the butterfly away and walked on.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once said, “Christ plays in ten thousand places … through the features of men’s faces” (As Kingfishers Catch Fire). Hopkins is right; we encounter the living Christ in the many faces of women and men bearing many names and speaking many languages. 

Your call, my call, the Church’s calling from God is to practice the presence of Christ. Which is another way of saying, “Listen for the meadowlark’s song and the thunder rolling across the sky; look for the brightly shinning star and the new born child; notice the butterflies. But most of all, whenever you feel out of touch with God, when you feel abandoned and alone, look for another human being who needs a hand, a hug, a cup of cool water, a meal, a kind word – Jesus is no farther away than that. 

That’s the meaning of the Transfiguration? Where Jesus is – God is present. 

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