Neh. 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 • Ps. 19 • 1 Cor. 12:12-31a • Luke 4:14-21
Today’s readings speak of veils and of veilings and unveilings. In Exodus we hear the story of Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai, where the Lord’s own glory had been partially unveiled to him (33:18ff). Moses caught only a glimpse of God’s glory, but it was such an awesome experience that “the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God” (34:29) and the people of Israel “were afraid to come near him” (v. 30). So Moses veiled his face, seemingly out of consideration for the people. And Exodus says that this pattern continued “whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him” (v. 34).
Paul makes reference to the narrative of Exodus when he writes how it is that for those in Christ the veil has been lifted which had hitherto hidden God’s glory from the vision even of his own people; and that we “with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).
The Gospel reading for this Sunday gives us, as it were, the metaphysical foundation of this feature of Christian life, and it is the identity of Jesus. As in Exodus, the narrative brings us “up on the mountain” for an encounter with God’s glory. And here again it is as though the curtain of the universe is lifted, and we are offered a glimpse of the reality of the interpenetration of matter and spirit that centers in Jesus: “while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Luke 9:29).
A puzzling feature of Luke’s Transfiguration narrative is his insistence that Peter, James, and John “were weighed down with sleep,” and yet nevertheless “had stayed awake” (9:32). This juxtaposition of wakefulness and sleep evokes the Lover from the Song of Songs who sings of her encounter with the Bridegroom in similar terms: “I slept, but my heart was awake. Hark! my beloved is knocking” (5:2). Both passages hint at God’s simultaneous nearness and hiddenness, what Gregory Nazianzen, speaking of Moses’ encounter with God on Sinai, called the “Back Parts of God, which He leaves behind Him, as tokens of Himself like the shadows and reflection of the sun in the water, which show the sun to our weak eyes, because we cannot look at the sun himself, for by his unmixed light he is too strong for our power of perception.”
Luke says that Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus on the mountain, and that they “were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (9:31). Luke is of course referring to the death of Jesus, to the events of Calvary. The Greek word here translated departure is exodus, which draws our attention to Jesus as the archetype to whom Moses pointed. Just as Moses led God’s people out of the land of Egypt, and the slavery and death that were a feature of their existence there, so too will Jesus lead God’s people through the veil of death to eternal and abundant life in the presence of his unveiled glory.
Look It Up
Through the centuries, the great teachers of Christian spirituality have taken up Scripture’s paradoxical metaphors like wakeful sleep (Song of Songs 5) or luminous darkness (1 Tim. 6:16, Ps. 97:2) to speak of the spiritual life. What do these paradoxes mean to teach us about God and our relationship with him?
Think About It
Our lectionary today offers us passages that draw out the central mystery of Christmas and Epiphany, the manifestation of the God who was invisible until the coming of Christ. Why is this theme particularly appropriate as we stand on the threshold of Lent?