Monday, February 17, 2020
Came And Touched Them
Every year, on the last Sunday before Lent, we climb up the mountain with Jesus, Peter, James, and John to witness the Transfiguration--the moment when Jesus began to shine with the glory of God. This year, since we're in Year A and we spend most of our Sundays reading in Matthew's gospel account, this coming Sunday feels like a distinctive interruption of the narrative. For the last several Sundays, we've heard what Jesus proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount. This week, we fast forward to Matthew's version of the Transfiguration in Matthew 17, but on Ash Wednesday we will snap back into the Sermon on the Mount and hear what Jesus has to say about prayers, fasting, and almsgiving. Still, the swap is less significant than in other years, when we jump from another gospel account into Matthew's introduction to Lent.
Because of that continuity, I'm particularly interested this week in what makes Matthew's version of the Transfiguration distinct, and my focus this morning is on what happens when the vision is over. Matthew tells us that the disciples fell on their faces, being overcome by fear. But then Jesus came and touched them and said, "Get up and do not be afraid," and, when the disciples looked up, only Jesus was there. That part? It isn't in the other gospel accounts.
Mark's version (Mark 9) and Luke's version (Luke 9) don't mention anything about Jesus coming to the disciples, touching them, or reassuring them. Instead, the disciples just look up and see that the event is over--that Jesus was standing alone. That gives Matthew some qualities that the other versions don't have. First, it makes this a pastoral moment. Jesus goes to the disciples. He seeks them out. He touches them and tells them to be not afraid. They were overwhelmed by their encounter with the Most High, and Jesus returns to them as their rabbi, their master and friend. Second, it gives this supernatural encounter a physical anchor that provides some contrast and depth. Do you know those moments when you're transfixed by something--a thought, a sight, and unexpected encounter--and then someone touches you on the shoulder or snaps their fingers or gently shakes you back into reality? That's what this moment feels like--as if the return to reality required a touch, an anchor in the real world. Maybe that gives the encounter an other-worldly, not-to-be-found-here quality. Or maybe it helps us remember that what happened was real--physical, touchable reality. I'm not sure about that, but I walk away from Matthew's version with a deeper sense of the concreteness of this encounter--as if the recollection here has some especially clear anchors in the historical account.
This Sunday's gospel is a moment when the power of God draws close to Jesus' disciples, and it's also a moment when Jesus, the Son of God, reconnects with them using physical touch. There's a double-nearness in this passage that interests me. So far, I haven't found any connection with the Sermon on the Mount or the end of Jesus life. Maybe there isn't one. But there's a reason Matthew gave us this particular depiction of the Transfiguration and how that event ended. Since we only hear this version once every three years, whether or not there's any connection with the rest of Year A, maybe there's value in stopping to notice what's distinct about it.