Just Look at Their Bright Shining Faces!

Exodus 34:29-35 and Luke 9:28-36
© Stacey Steck

Transfiguration Sunday is, after Ascension Day, perhaps the least known and understood of the special days of the church year, to the majority of Protestant Christians. The Orthodox and Catholic Churches celebrate it in high style, but we Protestants can’t even agree what Sunday of the year it should be, some choosing the traditional day of August 6 and others choosing, today, the final Sunday of the Season of Epiphany, also known as the last Sunday before Lent. At least Ascension Day has the excuse that it always falls on a Thursday. But Transfiguration Sunday has a remarkably low profile, for such a mountaintop experience. Its low profile may have to do with the fact that we have really just celebrated Christmas, and Easter is only seven short weeks away, and that the Transfiguration story isn’t really very climactic in the overall drama of the Gospels. It’s a very important part of the story, but it just doesn’t quite have the gravitas of some of the other episodes in Scripture, despite how mysterious and strangely beautiful it is.

I am tempted simply to read to you the 15th chapter of the book of First Corinthians and call it a day. That’s where the Apostle Paul waxes poetic about what our own resurrections will be like, and it’s a sort of unintentional commentary on the Transfiguration of Jesus. I say that because I believe that what Peter and James and John witnessed on the mountaintop was a glimpse of Jesus as he would become following his resurrection, and indeed what we will become following the resurrection that is promised to us in Jesus Christ. And that is the subject matter of First Corinthians 15: the form, and appearance, and matter, so to speak, of the resurrection body. Perhaps you’ve engaged in one of those great speculative conversations about what we will look like when we are resurrected. Will we look like we did at our prime? I certainly hope so! Or will we look as we did at the moment of our death? Or as we wished we had looked? Or as others saw us? Or as God sees us? If we were bald in life, will we still be bald in the resurrected life? If we had a limp, or poor eyesight, or terrible taste in clothing during our lifetimes, will we be stuck with all that for all eternity? Or will we just glow like Moses did on the mountaintop and Jesus did at the Transfiguration? That sounds pretty good. When that day comes, maybe we’ll look around and just exclaim, “Oh, look at their bright shiny faces!” like those who saw Moses and Jesus after their encounters with God. Because that’s what will have happened, right? We will have had our face to face encounter with God.

Of course, maybe that glow was from something else, like climbing the mountain. Remember when Dennis the Menace says to his nemesis, "Margaret, you are all sweaty.” And Margaret replies, “Dennis, girls don’t sweat. Horses sweat, boys perspire, and girls glow.” “Well, Margaret” said Dennis, “you are glowing like a racehorse.” It’s a little more likely, however, that the reason Moses and Jesus were glowing is that they experienced something like a baptism up there on their respective mountaintops, and baptism can, and should, leave us positively radiant after the Holy Spirit has left its mark on us. Indeed, the season of epiphany season started with the three kings, yes, but the very next week was the Baptism of Jesus, an event that concluded with God saying to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” And here the season of Epiphany ends with much the same words: “This is my son, my Chosen, Listen to him.” From an announcement to Jesus alone, “You are my Son,” to an announcement to the world, “This is my son,” the revelation of who Jesus is is complete. From a dove at the baptism to a glow at the transfiguration, the unveiling is complete.

The Transfiguration story in Luke is sandwiched between two revelations of Jesus’ impending death; twice he tells the disciples clearly what is going to happen to him. Yet, the Transfiguration experience is about life, eternal life, as represented by Moses and Elijah – seen “in glory” it says – and a Jesus who looks completely different from when we walked up the mountain alongside the three disciples. It is a divine meeting with divine possibilities, but not one with dead participants. I think the disciples, and we, are meant to understand that amidst all the talk of death, we receive a glimpse of the future, a glimpse of our own resurrection, and a glimpse of those resurrected bodies.

Now, what is it that Jesus, Moses, and Elijah were talking about up there? It says they were talking about Jesus’ “departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem,” and we are to infer from that they are referring to his death, especially because we have just heard Jesus announce that the “Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Beyond that it confirms what Jesus has just said, what is interesting about that divine conversation is the word we have translated here as “departure.” That word is interesting because it translates a Greek word more commonly translated as “exodus,” a word which recalls so much of God’s presence with God’s people, and so much of Moses’ life, of course, as he led the Hebrews through the waters in their Exodus from Egypt, and so much of Elijah’s life, as he tried to lead his people out their slavery to idolatry, tried to lead an Exodus of the Kings from the ways they grieved God and punished their own poor. And of course it describes our own personal passages from death to life, from bondage to freedom, from punishment to grace, all in the Jesus Christ whose own exodus through his death and resurrection accomplished our own exoduses. And isn’t that exactly what we celebrate in baptism?

In baptism, we celebrate what Christ has done for us. In baptism, we celebrate our passage from death to life. In baptism, we celebrate our rejection of sin, and God’s help in accomplishing that rejection. In baptism, we celebrate God’s grace that calls us and leads us through the waters. There was only one Exodus from Egypt, only one crossing of the parted seas. There is only one baptism, our baptism in Jesus Christ, and only one baptism in water for each of us. And that moment is our Exodus, and we are changed, and in the midst of our death to sin we celebrate our rising to life. That’s when our faces should really begin to shine, shining as if we were in the very presence of God, which indeed we are.

You hear me talk about baptism frequently, certainly more frequently than we celebrate baptisms here. That’s because it is such an important sign and seal of God’s grace in our lives, and we are foolish not to remember it more often. Often taking place a long time ago, or so young in our lives that we do not remember them, our baptisms easily slip away into that category of overlooked ritual, kind of like the very day of Transfiguration Sunday, important, yet not as climactic as some of the other more compelling moments of our lives, despite how mysterious and strangely beautiful it is. But if our baptisms are a foretaste of our eternal life, it seems to me that we should appear at least a little transfigured all the time, our faces shining for all the world to see, whether from sweat or glory. But more than simply being transfigured on the outside, we should be transformed on the inside, and seeing the world differently, just as others are seeing us differently. Thomas Merton, the famous twentieth century Trappist monk, had an experience that I think captures both the transfiguration and transformation we are privileged to enjoy through baptism. He says,

“I was in Louisville, Kentucky, in the shopping mall, when I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people around me, even though they were complete strangers. It felt like waking from a dream. It was as if I could see the secret beauty in their hearts, the deep self where sin and ego can’t reach, the core of their reality, the person that each is in God’s eyes. I couldn’t explain it. How can you go up to people and tell them they're walking around shining like the sun? If only they could see themselves as they truly are. If only we could all see each other that way all the time. I suppose the problem would be that we’d fall down and worship each other.”

Merton saw the people in the mall as God saw them. I don’t think that’s possible any other way than passing through the waters of baptism, and beginning to glow ourselves. In whatever we do, may people see us and say “Why, just look at their bright shiny faces, and the beauty of their hearts.” And as we see others through the eyes of love, may we say, “Why, just look at their bright shiny faces, and the beauty of their hearts.” Amen.