It happens every year. Transfiguration Sunday. Or, the Sunday before Lent in which Jesus time travels but we pretend he doesn’t, because it’s Christologically confusing, ecclesiologically misleading, and theologically extraneous. It’s the only moment in the four gospels when Jesus and Moses hang out together, and yet we insist on celebrating this mystical Ghost-of-Torah-Past every year. Yes, it is there, in the Bible, but I’ve wondered, for a long time, what is the point of Transfiguration Sunday?
We read three texts (from Exodus, Luke, and 2 Corinthians) involving shiny faces, bright white lights, and veils. I firmly believe that every word of the Bible is God-breathed and speaks into the human struggle of worthlessness and redemption. However, I am beginning to suspect Transfiguration Sunday is an institutional construct that has outlived its pedagogical and theological function in most congregations.
How do we tackle the complexity of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus having a conversation when most of the people in the pews don’t even know who Elijah is? This beautiful image of God’s movement across time, of legitimating the Messiah within his own tradition–it’s inspiring. It’s also dense, especially when compounded by the ancient, pedantic theological argument Paul makes in 2 Corinthians 3, which is all of veils and and glory.
The American Christian Church is so biblically illiterate that our insistence on celebrating transfiguration is putting the theologically cart before the horse. Or, if you prefer more Pauline language, like feeding solid food to infants. As a church, we’ve failed to do the groundwork of basic biblical education–so how can we expect people to follow us on the journey of Transfiguration without reducing it to, at best, time travel and ghosts?
The Transfiguration passages are all to do with Jewish identity politics and legitimating the messiah. For we who barely remember our Jewish roots, it seems inadvisable to distill this in a 20-minute sermon. It becomes a self-indulgent academic exercise in which preachers legitimize and promote the idea that the pulpit is a profession.
Generally, the stated purpose of Transfiguration Sunday is that in the days leading up to Lent, this is the bridge between Jesus’ public ministry and his passion; from this point forward, he “sets his face toward Jerusalem,” bound for his destiny. But if so, the bridge becomes a wall! It is the point of separation that allows the binary human mind to separate “divine Jesus” from “ethical-but-human Jesus.” It divinizes the fully-grown male God figure, distancing him from the child incarnate who came to be present in the fullness of human life.
To the undereducated Christian, and even to me with a seminary degree, at times it appears to be a story all about glorifying chummy men’s cliques and setting whiteness next to holiness. Let us give credit to our congregations for living in their moment–they are far too 2016 to dive easily into unpacking the function of veils in meetings with God. I am all in favor of inviting our laypeople to rise to the challenge of the text–but how can they do that when we don’t give them the basic tools–like the books of Exodus and 1 and 2 Kings?
Perhaps I say all of this because I feel too uneducated to preach on these three interdependent, densely symbolic passages. And I do. I would gladly lead a 5-hour workshop/seminar on the interplay of these three texts, but to claim it can be interpreted in a digestible fashion in 20 minutes is an injustice to the text.
If we want to catch up to where the contemporary North American church is right now, we ought to bridge Epiphany and Lent with Biblical Literacy Sunday–a Sunday that begs us to at least memorize the 10 commandments before we reflect on the shiny face of the one bringing them down to earth. A Sunday that reminds us that we are storied people, and the decline of American Christianity is intimately tied to ignorance of the stories that shape our professed beliefs. That the form of our worship is an inheritance of patriarchy and white privilege that may no longer (perhaps never did?) serve the function of Christ’s call.
Let us remember that Jesus is still a tremendously popular, lovable figure in the American imagination. It’s Christians who are so unpopular. And we are unpopular because we emphasize the obscure and the inaccessible over the simple and the straightforward words of the Christ. If we are trying to combat the easy vitriol of proof-text and Donald Trump-isms, why are we using the heady terminology of Christological identity? Wouldn’t we do ourselves a better service if we replaced Transfiguration Sunday with Sermon on the Mount Sunday?
I will include the Luke text in my sermon this Sunday. But I will also include one of the simple statements that makes Jesus such a relatable figure: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” Let’s make sure our churches have that one down before we turn to the mystical and abstract. Isn’t, after all, the point of Lent to remember what belongs to God?