The Episcopalian communion observes Transfiguration Sunday just before the beginning of Lent, while Catholics and others commemorate it today as a prelude to the great Lenten mysteries. The liturgical Feast of the Transfiguration has been celebrated on August 6th since the fourth century, but it is recalled here as fitting overture to the great drama of redemption that is about to unfold. Such an observance might seem irrelevant in view of the catastrophe facing the Ukrainian people today, but that is far from the truth.
In each of the synoptic gospels in which the Transfiguration is described, it is placed immediately after Jesus’ first prediction of his passion and death. To make the point sharper, Luke tells us that the conversation witnessed among Jesus, Moses, and Elijah concerns the departure, “exodus” is the telling word used, that he would fulfill in Jerusalem. And as Jesus and the disciples descend the mountain, Jesus warns them not to tell anyone of the vision they had seen, which they did not yet understand, until “the Son of Man is raised from the dead” [Matt 17:9]. Luke says simply that they told no one what they had witnessed.
The “theophany,” or manifestation of divine presence on the Mountain recalls the voice heard at Jesus’ baptism – “This is my beloved Son, listen to him” [Luke 3:22. 9:35]. Hearing the voice of God figures also in the first reading on all three Sundays of the liturgical year in the story of God’s covenant with Abraham. The passages from Matthew and Mark focus on the story of the near-sacrifice of Abraham’s beloved son, Isaac. This year, in Luke’s gospel, we recall the first great covenant God makes with Abraham, a bond ratified by a dramatic sacrifice. In both accounts, Abraham is promised not only a land flowing with milk and honey, but posterity as numerous as the stars in the night sky. Life from death. As Paul wrote to his fledgling church in Corinth, “Death is swallowed up in victory” [1 Cor 15:54], a final Transfiguration when, as we also heard in the second reading for today, Christ “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him also to subject all things to himself” [Phil 3:21].
The Ancient Covenant had been first enacted in darkness and at night in the midst of slain animals, blazing fire, and the voice of God. Now the Light of Glory shines through and from Jesus between living human witnesses that enacts a new covenant promise, the fulfilment of all the promises. Here, Moses and Elijah are not merely figures of the Law and the Prophets, but messengers, evangelists who presage the Messianic Reign of God.
Jesus is about to fulfill the ancient covenant and lead humanity into a land of promise beyond all expectation. But he would do this by emptying himself, and here is the connection with the Epistle to the Philippians. Jesus was about to suffer and die and so enter into his glory. For as he knew, death was waiting for him in Jerusalem, but death that would end in victory.
As the world waits with dread anticipation the outcome of the horrendous assault on Ukraine by Russian military might, the promise that death is not final, that justification and ultimate vindication are not idle dreams may give some sense of hope to the innocent children, women, and men who will perish in this terrible folly and the millions more being driven from their homes and country. For the rest of us, to witness their agony at the beginning of the Lenten season is an excruciating reminder that suffering and death all-too often precede the fulfilment of promise. Please support and pray for the Ukrainian people. May God strengthen their faith in their hour of trial.