Readings Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 and Matthew 17:1-9
We have come to the end of the season of epiphany, a season in which we reflect on the way in which Jesus’ glory is made known, or revealed. Whether that be by other people (such as the Magi, Simeon and Anna in the Temple, or John the Baptist at the Jordan) or whether that be through Jesus’ own hand (in his healings, his deliverance, his teaching). The transfiguration is the great crescendo of this season. Jesus, shining between the figures of Moses and Elijah (the great symbols of the Law and the Prophets), on top of the mountain won by Deborah (faithful and bold Judge of Israel), beneath the voice of God calling him beloved. Look anywhere you want in this scene, and something significant and glorious is being revealed.
Jesus stands at the heart of his people and their tradition. Torah, Prophets, Judges, and Christ, radiating the glory of God. Time and space fold in on this moment, on Christ, the anointed Son of God. This is a moment without parallel. The crescendo of the story! Surely this is the climax of God’s story with humanity – everyone is there, the heavens declare the glory. The disciples are ready to pitch tents for all three, for surely the day of the Lord is at hand, the kingdom is here, the age to come has come!
And yet, the scene comes to a quiet close. The figures recede, the clothes lose their radiance, and the disciples – crumbled in awe – are lifted from the ground by their friend, who says, come along now, back down the mountain.
This scene, this remarkable scene, is not the climax, is not the end. Christ sets off down the mountain, back to the world and its need. No sooner has Jesus returned to the people at the bottom of the mountain, than Jesus is presented with a young epileptic who the disciples have been unable to heal. Jesus, first words after the transfiguration are:
‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.’
We can all be a bit grumpy when we return from a holiday. The banal and mundane demands of the world (such as needing to go out and get milk, or find a toy in a suitcase, or wash that pan you that decided could wait until you got back) can feel like an affront to the serene, relaxed vibe we have cultivated in our time away.
Life resumes. After every high moment, life resumes. We come to church, and then we are sent… we don’t live on the mountain.
At the end of epiphany comes Lent. The season of preparation echoing Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. Lent is when we prepare the way and prepare our hearts for Calvary. A season of fasting, repentance, and reflection so that we are ready to encounter once more the rupture and grace, the desolation and victory, the humiliation and triumph of Easter’s cross and resurrection. The next time we gather together as a church, after hearing the words of Christ’s radiant and glorious transfiguration, is on Wednesday when we hear the words, remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. From the moment when time and eternity fold in on Christ, we are shunted to the most profound reminder of mortality in the Christian calendar.
Because Christianity is something you live out, every day. Not in some idealised world, not in some discreet reality insulated from need and complexity, but in the ordinary details of the world as it is. It is not only a religion of holidays but ordinary time, not only Sundays but Mondays too.
The reading from Leviticus 19 is the heart of the Torah. Similar to the image used for the transfiguration of all things bending in toward the centre, the Levitical codes in the chapters preceding and following this, all bend to here, orbiting around this pivotal centre: you shall love your neighbour as yourself. And lest this feel a little too removed, a little too pie in the sky, at the foot of the mountain of this commandment are the pressing needs of the community:
You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien.
You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely.
You shall not keep for yourself the wages of a labourer until morning.
You shall not render an unjust judgement
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin
The fair distribution of the fruit of the land. Dealing honestly with one another, without scheme or fraud. Don’t commit wage theft or make your freelancer or contractor send you invoice after invoice before processing payment. Do not allow one system of justice and accountability for the powerful and another for the rest. Try your best to resolve hostility in the home. The path this passage takes to the command to love your neighbour is paved in the everyday, mundane, and seemingly timeless ways in which we hurt, mistreat, and exploit one another. Love is in the details. In all the many choices in our family, social, and economic lives together.
Christianity is something we live out. Our faithfulness is found in the details of the every day.
For this reason, we keep reading after the Transfiguration. This might be the end of the season of epiphany, but it is not the end of the revelation of Christ’s glory. Christ’s victory over sin and death, the event by which God reconciles all things, is not secured on a mountain away from the masses, but between two thieves slowly expiring on hunks of wood. It is out of the supposed iron grip of imperial violence and devilish scheming that Christ brings deliverance and raises us all to glory. Because it is here, in the fray, in the midst of it all that Christ’s full glory is revealed, where the fullness of God’s love radiates out. The paradox makes it shine all the more! The joy of resurrection springs forth like flowers after frost, and Christ once again says to faithless disciples, fear not, and without a hint of grumpiness, he reminds them (and us) that they will never be without him, that he will be with us always, even to the end of the age.
Image: Jules Breton, The Gleaners (1854)
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