Saturday, September 6, 2008
February 3, 2008 Last after the Feast of the Epiphany, Quinquagesima, the Sunday next before Lent
Exodus 24: 12-18; II Peter 1:16-21; Psalm 2; Matthew 17: 1-9
In the Anglican Prayer Book tradition from the 16th century through the middle of the 20th the gospel lesson appointed for Quinquagesima, the Sunday next before Lent, was from St. Luke-- the story of the blind beggar who hears Jesus and his disciples passing along the road outside of Jericho, and calls out to him, “Son of David, have mercy on me,” and who is healed, and who then, in a moment of conversion, determines not to return to his own home, but to join with the disciples and to follow Jesus down the road toward Jerusalem and Holy Week and the Cross.
Our new lectionaries beginning in the later 20th century have followed a different tradition for this Sunday, one that was to follow the readings in the modern Roman Catholic three-year Eucharistic calendar, and on this Sunday, now called the “Last after Epiphany,” we have every year a gospel account, this year from Matthew, of the story of the Mount of Transfiguration. A somewhat different kind of a story, but with some deeper patterns of similarity, I think. It is also for one thing an event along the road toward Jerusalem. Like the story of the blind man, it is also a story about vision, about seeing in a new way, healing, transformation. And it is preeminently a story of discipleship, of the call to companionship and obedience, about a renewal, the beginning of a new life, and about following Jesus.
The Transfiguration story itself is of course very familiar. In the midst of increasing opposition and with a sense of persecution just ahead, on the horizon, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John on a day of prayer and retreat. And there at the top of the mountain the disciples have this extraordinary vision, Jesus enveloped in a shimmering halo, with the two great characters of Jewish religious history, Moses and Elijah, the Lawgiver and the Prophet, suddenly there with him in that bright cloud. Communing, speaking together. And then, dramatically, the voice from heaven, “this is my son, the beloved.”
This moment where the distance between this world and the next, between the created universe and the realm of heaven, collapses on itself, the disciples standing at the very edge, peering into the realm of God’s eternity of light and life. Fifty long and hard days until Easter, a lifetime, but on this afternoon, the disciples are transported, lifted for one brief moment, into that new reality. And then the vision ends—and I love this word from Matthew: “And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus, himself, alone.” And they rise up from their resting place, and follow him back down the mountain, on the way to the Cross.
Vision. Seeing in a new way. Healing. Transformation. Discipleship. Companionship and obedience. Renewal. The beginning of a new life. Following Jesus.
We are invited and called to the altar this day, this Last after Epiphany, Next before Lent, that as we open our hands to receive the Body and Blood of the sacramental mystery of his life and death, the miracle of the Cross, body broken and blood poured out, we would open our minds and our hearts and our imaginations for this moment to become like the blind man of Luke’s gospel, or to be with Peter and James and John at the top of that Mountain of Transfiguration, as we have heard their story today.
Distances of geography, distances of the centuries disappear. For us as for them—for us, as for them, the distances between earth and heaven are for this moment as nothing. As he touched them, asked them to rise up without fear, and to follow him, so now, as we are with him, his hand rests on our shoulder as well. “Get up, and do not be afraid.”
So Lent, before us now. Pancakes on Tuesday evening, and on Wednesday the streak of ash on our foreheads. The mark of our mortality. The ultimate end of this world, all that is in it, all of us. A long journey ahead, down the mountain, on to Golgotha. But we would like the blind man, like Peter, James, and John, hold in our hearts this secret knowledge, this deep memory. Holding in remembrance that most transfiguring moment of our lives, as we would see, as if for the first time, and that we would see “no one except Jesus, himself, alone.” -- “no one except Jesus, himself, alone.” And then this last line of the Transfiguration story in Matthew. “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
For the moment, it will be our secret. Just between us. Our secret, and our consolation. The source of our deepest and truest hope. Waiting to be revealed in the quiet of our hearts. We set our Alleluias aside for a season now, but we know where we left them, and the hope and promise and assurance of Easter victory that was his, is his, will be his, and will be ours, world without end.