Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Odd But Important Timeline

Every year, on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, which is another way of saying the final Sunday before Lent starts, we go up the same mountain to watch Jesus transfigured before us, to see Moses and Elijah standing with him, to hear God's voice proclaim Jesus as God's beloved, and to walk back down the mountain alongside Peter, James, and John. This year, it's Luke's version. Next year will be Matthew, and the year after that will be Mark. There are subtle differences between the readings, and that's a subject for another blog post, but, for this one, I note how this pattern never changes. Lent is about to start, so we head up the mountain with Jesus.

Why? The Feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated on August 6, when we'll climb back up the mountain again. Why do we read this story now? Why is it always our pre-Lenten celebration? Part of the answer comes in the collect for this Sunday, in which we pray, "O God, who before the passion of your only ­begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory." But which is the chicken and which is the egg? Do we pray that collect simply because we always read about the same episode, or were collect and lesson sought intentionally? Why is it that we seek strength in seeing again the glory of God's Son revealed on the holy mountain?

Another reason is that the story of the Transfiguration provides a pivot point for the synoptic gospel tradition. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all turn their gospels around this moment. Mark does it most dramatically, but the others more or less follow suit. Before this mountain-top moment, the emphasis is on showing the crowds who Jesus really is as Son of God, Son of Man, Messiah, Christ. During the season after the Epiphany, we've heard sermons and seen miracles and learned parables that are designed to build a case for Jesus as more than just a special, dynamic, God-centered rabbi. We've been learning about Jesus as God-in-the-flesh, the Incarnate One.

That's why, right before they go up the mountain, Peter identifies Jesus as the Christ. After all the pieces of the puzzle have been laid out, God, we are told, has revealed this to Peter. And what is Jesus' response? "Good job, Peter. Now I'm going to die." Actually, this might be the real pivot point of the gospel. Peter identifies Jesus as the Christ, so Jesus sets his sights on Jerusalem and the terrible fate that awaits him there. And, before they go, before they begin the journey to the cross and the wilderness of Jesus' passion, God wants them to see that, despite the terrible events ahead of them, Jesus really is who Peter says that he is--whom God says that he is.

We, too, are about to head to Jerusalem. We have our own pilgrimage through the barren places of Lent. We may fast. We may pray. We may confess, repent, and return. The work of Lent is hard work, but it is good work. But why do we do it? We do it to join Jesus in the journey to and through death. We do it because this journey is where we find our own true meaning. We do it because this journey is where we see the truth that Jesus is God's anointed one. And the road is hard, and the darkness is real, and we ask God to show us the light of Christ's glory so that we might be sustained in those tough places.

And just to make the timeline really strange, next Sunday, we will go all the way back to where we began the season after the Epiphany, to the waters of Jesus' baptism, and journey with him from them into the wilderness--the internal wilderness of self-discovery. But that can wait for another week.

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