Transfiguration – Last Epiphany A
March 2, 2014
This week, in the Liturgical Calendar, we celebrate the Transfiguration of Christ. But why should anyone care? Transfiguration, after all, is one of those confusing church terms – kind of like “Transubstantiation” or “Eucharist” – that normal people understandably find confusing and a bit alienating. The Greek term for “transfigured” is metamorphoO, pointing back to the English term “metamorphosis”. But it’s a special kind of metamorphosis where the interior, radiant, spiritual part of a person is made visible on the outside. Transfiguration manifests as a brilliant, holy shining, unlike any ordinary light on earth. The Gospel reading for the Transfiguration of Christ goes as follows (note that the Transfiguration appears in the Gospels of Mark and Luke as well):
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone (Matthew 17:1-8).
Six days before the Transfiguration, Jesus is in Caesarea Philippi, trying to get His Disciples to come to terms with his imminent death: “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21). Jesus can sense where His ministry will ultimately lead him, and where it will ultimately lead His Disciples as well. He tells them “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (vv.24). The cross, at that point in history, did not have the same meaning it does today. For the Disciples who were listening to Jesus, the cross was a Roman torture device, used as capital punishment for traitors, brigands and revolutionaries – anyone who posed a threat to the order of the regime. So the brightness of the Transfiguration, six days later, would highlight the deep, dark shadow of the cross.
We can perhaps understand the Transfiguration a little better by looking at an event, centuries later, where (I believe) another spectacular and brilliant metamorphosis took place. The date was April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple, Church of God in Christ headquarters, Memphis, Tennessee. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had joined the struggle of the striking sanitation workers in Memphis. Dr. King’s ministry was reaching its zenith – but it was also seeing some very serious challenges. The Black Power movement was rising and presenting an alternative, more confrontational vision of Black leadership than Dr. King’s nonviolent Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Since Dr. King had come out in opposition to the Vietnam War, he had been receiving far more death threats than ever before. Even the weather that night was ominous, as listeners braved a storm warning to hear Dr. King. The Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles, a friend of Dr. King’s who was present that night, said “he talked about death more that night than we’d heard him talk about it in a long while” (NPR, “Remembering MLK’s Prophetic ‘Mountaintop’ Speech”). Dr. King recalled, in the speech, that ten years before he had nearly been killed by a mentally ill woman who had stabbed him with a letter-opener during a book-signing. The weapon came so close to his aorta that, if he had sneezed, he would have certainly bled out and died. In Memphis, Dr. King took his listeners through the series of events after his near-death that he would not have seen “if I had sneezed” – “… he would not have been around in 1960, when students began sitting-in at lunch counters, or in subsequent years to see the freedom riders, the march in Selma and other key events in the civil rights movement … The passage brought the [Memphis] crowd to its feet” (NPR). The Rev. Kyles recalls, 40 years later, that “Many of us, grown men, were crying. We didn’t know why we were crying. We had no way of knowing that would be the last speech of his life. And then he took us to the mountaintop … ” (NPR). While Jesus was on a literal mountaintop during His Transfiguration, Dr. King brought his listeners to a spiritual mountaintop at the climax of his speech. The energy of his words is so palpable, that even today, they move us in a way that few other speakers in history have: Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!! After that, the Rev. Kyles shares, “we had to help him to his seat behind that powerful, prophetic speech” (NPR). This was God’s Beloved. Listen to him. The next day, Dr. King would be assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
The Mountaintop Speech was not merely an exercise in masterful oratory. People were not just emotionally moved by a good speech. Dr. King was Transfigured: “He preached himself through the fear of death,” Kyles says. “He just got it out of him. He just … dealt with it. And we were just standing there” (NPR). He went from being a single, frightened human being, to someone suffused with the Light of the Divine, borne across an ocean of fear. Those who heard him were not just moved, they were transformed – and are still transformed today. And as Dr. King transformed his listeners that night, he transformed history – out of fear and death, into a hope for the future. May we continue to be open to the transformation of God’s chesed (unconditional, Covenant-backed love) today. Listen to the entire Mountaintop Speech here: American Rhetoric.