By Steven A. Peay
I love Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s “2,000-Year-Old Man.” I never tire of hearing Reiner’s interviewer ask Brooks’s 2,000-year-old Jewish fellow what is the greatest thing ever to happen to humanity, and he responds, “Saran Wrap! You can wrap a sandwich in it, or an olive, or three olives, and you can see through it!”
There is that certain see-through quality that is attractive, even in humor. The Lord’s Transfiguration speaks to me of transparency, which has become a watchword and a goal for me, both in ministry and in spiritual life. In the experience of Mount Tabor, we are given a glimpse of that see-through quality, a sense of belonging and purpose that pierced the clouds of loneliness, doubt, and fear that have kept humanity from knowing the God who loves us.
If the readings from Exodus and Luke sounded similar to you, it’s because the similarity is deliberate. Very early on in the Christian experience, the strong likeness between Moses and Jesus was celebrated. There are details in this account designed to evoke ancient memories, reawaken and refocus the stories of Israel’s founding.
As Sharon Ringe writes, “The two figures who ‘appear in glory’ with Jesus are Moses and Elijah — figures in Israel’s past, in whose likeness the prophet of the end time was expected to come.” As Moses leads an exodus, a departure, so too will Jesus go through an exodus in Jerusalem — going through suffering and death to rise and then ascend to the Father’s right hand.
Ringe adds that “in the account of Israel’s history, the exodus marked the beginning of the long journey into the promised land, and this episode comes at the outset of Jesus’ long journey that will be ‘accomplished only in Jerusalem.’” In Jesus’ pilgrimage from the Mount of Transfiguration to Jerusalem and in the events there, we see in him, in his action, that certain see-through quality that is to mark how we, as his followers, are to live.
Thus, the early Church’s great teachers emphasized that to understand Jesus we need to first understand Moses. When Marcion and others tried to say that the God of the Old Testament was a false or demigod, and that the Hebrew Scriptures should be ignored, the Church said ‘No!’ The late Anglican spiritual writer Kenneth Leech summed this up very nicely in his book, Experiencing God: Theology as Spirituality. He wrote:
later Christian thought came to interpret the redeeming work of Christ in terms of the Exodus story. “In the Exodus, in the death and resurrection of Christ, it is the same redeeming action which is accomplished at different levels of history.” The Christian liturgy celebrates the work of Christ by using the symbol of the Exodus, and the Christian Scriptures use the Exodus as the framework of their teaching. It was “the manifest intention of the authors of the New Testament to present the mystery of Christ at the time as prolonging and as surpassing the great events of Israel’s history at the time of Moses.”
. . . As in the deliverance from Egypt, so in the Paschal mystery, God’s people are set free from slavery. But now, in the words of Hippolytus of Rome, there is a “cosmic and universal Pasch [Easter].”
What should be clear is that God is opening to us in a new way, and in Jesus we’re invited to a new level of intimacy. Now the cloud that guided Israel out of Egypt and shrouded Sinai hovers over Tabor, and out of its brightness comes the voice of God. The voice speaks a word of comfort and assurance to Jesus: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
Just before going up Tabor, Jesus asked the disciples who people said he was and then he asked them who they thought he was. Peter answers boldly, “The Messiah of God.” In response to that confession of faith, Jesus told them,
“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.” Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?”
Peter makes his confession, hears Jesus’ words, and yet in Luke’s account, goes up the mountain and wants to build “booths.” It may echo the Feast of Tabernacles, but it also means that Peter is missing the point. The words coming from heaven — “Listen!” — fall just short of a cosmic whack upside the head! Why? Because he couldn’t see that in the act of becoming one with us in flesh — even in suffering and death — God identifies with us completely, and it’s not supposed to stay on the mountain.
Through Christ we are brought into the possibility of oneness, true union with God. And, wondrous gift, in the process we are restored to true humanity as well. The act of transfiguration is, then, the hope and destiny of all humanity. Each of us is called to have that certain see-through quality that allows the glory of God to shine through us and to be seen by the entire world. What happens on Tabor isn’t meant to stay in the realm of religious experience, of the high point, the mountaintop. It’s supposed to head down the mountainside and out into everyday life.
All of us have heard of those whose faces have shone with God’s glory. In our age of special effects and computer-enhanced graphics, it’s very difficult for us to think of what happened on Tabor, or those with shining faces, and believe it actually happened. We want to put these happenings into the realm of mythology. I think we need not so much worry about the phenomena or how to document the occurrence, but to look to the real point — that God wants to be a part of us, of our world, and of our everyday lives. God wants to restore us to the kind of personhood, the kind of glory for which we were made, and God makes this possible in Jesus Christ.
For all of our great advances in technology, we still live in something of a dark age. The more we seem to know, the more seems to be covered up. Look at the newspaper or listen to the news and there are stories of intentional cover-ups and deceptions in every area. We could look at politics (and here there are more examples than I care to go into), or business, or even sports (where drug use to enhance performance or just for pleasure always seems to hang in the wings). Those real-world events cast a dark shadow and have less than that certain-see-through-quality. It is precisely to overcome the deception, the alienation, the fear, that God has come among us and invites us to a new and wonderful transparency of heart, of mind, and of life. What happened on that mountain long ago continues to speak to us today and continues to call us to live lives with that certain see-through quality that allows the brightness of God’s love shine through.
As much as I enjoy Mel Brooks, the greatest thing that ever happened to humanity isn’t Saran Wrap. However, the “2,000 Year-Old Man” was on to something, because the greatest thing is see-through. The greatest thing that has happened to us is that God has opened his life to us, and in doing so has restored us to the fullness of what it means to be human.
Regardless of the darkness and the cover-ups all around us, the light shines inside us and seeks to light up our world. In the Transfiguration we get a glimpse of the glory and the destiny that is ours. Now it is time to go back down the mountain. It is time to go back into the ordinariness of our daily lives, but as we go we remember something.
Remember that we’re to have that certain see-through quality to our lives, so the glory inside us gets out and brightens those around us. Remember the voice that speaks to each of us who takes the time to hear it, or to see the glory within, and tells us that we’re to listen to Jesus. What did Jesus teach us? That God loves us very much and that certain see-through quality in his life proved it. The greatest thing to happen to humanity wasn’t Saran Wrap; it was God opening that certain see-through quality even to us.
The Very Rev. Dr. Steven A. Peay was dean-president emeritus of Nashotah House Theological Seminary.