This coming Sunday is the last one before Lent. Because of that, we fast-forward through four weeks of lessons that don’t get read this year because Easter will come at the end of March. Everything gets lopped off and backed up because of the lunar cycle used to set the date of Easter. For preachers, that means we’ve skipped over Luke 5, 6, & 7 and jumped right to Luke 9—the story of the Transfiguration. The season after the Epiphany is the time when the church hears stories of Jesus’ miracles and teachings that help undergird our belief in his identity as the messiah. With four fewer opportunities to hear those texts, congregations will just have to trust their preachers that the ultimate revealing/unveiling, which happens in this Sunday’s gospel text, has been built up to carefully by Luke.
When the veil comes off, we (Peter, James, and John) see something that had been hidden for a long time. Actually, “hidden” isn’t quite the right word. The rest of this week’s lessons show us that the right approach is to think of them as being “veiled.” For all of human history (at least since the Fall), we’ve been trying to see God. Moses was only allowed to see God’s hindparts (Exodus 33:12-23), but, because he spoke with him in such close proximity, Moses’ face shone with the residual glory that he encountered. So Moses put on a veil whenever he came back from talking with God because the shining face scared the people. That’s a fascinating way to tell the story, and I think it’s about more than God’s glory sticking to Moses. I think it was the ancient Israelites way of reinforcing the need for a buffer between themselves and God. Not only did they rely on Moses to do the talking—they also couldn’t look him in the eye afterwards.
Paul really takes this line and carries it in 2 Corinthians. He writes as if the veil itself represents the distinction between the old and new covenants. For Paul, Jesus is the removal of that veil, and, although he doesn’t write about the transfiguration itself, he tells us that through Christ the veil comes off so that we can see God—not quite directly but “as though reflected in a mirror.” Maybe it’s just because I’m still thinking about last Sunday’s reading from 1 Corinthians 13, but I think it’s interesting that Paul uses the mirror image again this week. This time, however, it’s to underscore that we see God far more clearly now than we did before Jesus.
The Transfiguration account underscores this fact. Peter, James, and John (and, because of the gospeller’s account, we, too) get to see God’s glory shining in and through Jesus—not as a reflection, not as a residual afterglow, but as the straight-on, real thing.
As I read these gospel lessons, I feel God calling me to strip off the layers. What comes between us and God? What do we put between ourselves and God? We need lots of buffers. We hide behind lots of veils. Luther would have agreed with Paul—that it’s the Law we prefer to hide our relationship with God behind. Nowadays, it’s sentimentality or technology or perfectionism or whatever cloudy lens we want to look at God through. Why is it we want to filter God through layers of approximation? Why do we look for ways to moderate, structure, and buffer our relationship with God? How many of our churches are trying to get people closer to God rather than bring people closer to religion?