Shining with Glory
On the church calendar, the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent is Transfiguration Sunday, when we reflect on Christ’s divine transformation in the presence of several of his disciples. I’ll confess that the Transfiguration Sunday sermon is among my least favorite to prepare of the church year. The disciples didn’t understand or know what to say in reponse to Christ’s transfiguration, and neither do I! It’s a holy mystery. This year, as you’ll hear, I have striven to understand in the simplest way possible what happened to Christ, what happened many centuries earlier to Moses, all with a hope for what might happen, in the simplest way, to you and me.
At its simplest, Moses and Jesus shine with the glory of God. They are alight. The face of Moses is recognizable as his own, the figure of Christ is recognizable as his own, but that same old face, so familiar to brother Aaron and the rest, and the person of Jesus so constantly known to his disciples, they glow with an intensity that all onlookers know instantly is supernatural. Moses doesn’t even know that he is shining. The glowing brilliance of Moses is terrifying to the others; he puts on a veil to protect them. The disciples are terrified on the mountaintop to see Christ light up with God’s glory, suddenly in the company of Moses and Elijah. Only a few weeks ago, it seems, we were reading the story of the night of Christ’s birth, when the glory of God fills the skies above the fields around Bethlehem, and a poor group of unsuspecting shepherds is, as the Gospel says, “terrified.” Nine months before that, the angel Gabriel had appeared to a young girl in Nazareth and began with the words “Do not be afraid.” Had Mary jumped behind a chair? The glory of God and of God’s divine emissaries is terrifying. It is a holy mystery, and it rattles those who get a glimpse of it because they glimpse its unlimited power, they glimpse the infinite, they understand how infinite is the magnitude of all that they do not understand, and do not control. In the presence of infinite power, those who catch a quick vision of all they do not know are terrified.
Terror, of course, isn’t God’s intent. To Mary and the shepherds, to the Israelites and the disciples, it is affirmation and instruction. Moses’ face doesn’t shine because he is great but because he is reflecting, communicating, and channeling God’s glory. Christ, in total communion with God, manifests God’s glory. Mary declares, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” At their simplest, each of the amazing stories is about how individual people let themselves be vessels for the glory of God, mirrors to reflect the glory, vehicles for the expression of God’s glory. They themselves are not the source of the glory; they are the ones who make themselves available to magnify it to others.
At its simplest, I think that the transfiguration of Jesus, holy mystery that it is, is our invitation to be vessels for the revealing of the glory of God to others. Karl Barth wrote, “We cannot ourselves put on bright faces. But neither can we prevent them from shining. Looking up to [Christ], our faces shine.” Whoever we know ourselves to be, we can shine with God’s glory. We are complex people. We have many faults. We sin – some of us boldly, some of us with as little notice as possible. We are very, very far from perfect. But perfection isn’t required of us, only a willingness to look up to Christ; God and Christ accomplish the rest. In the best of ways, neither you nor I can excuse ourselves from shining with glory. We are capable of it because every single one of us – all humanity – is made in the image of God. We are imago dei. That does not mean that we inherited a particular setting of the eyes or cleft chin from the Almighty, but that we have the very spark of God within us. We have the reflection of God’s holiness within us at all times, no matter who we are or what we do. We are in the image of God because what animates God – the breath of God – God has breathed into us at Creation to give us life. Nothing we can do, or that is done to us, can alter or remove the fact of our being made in the image of God. Nothing.
We don’t put on bright faces – we can’t choose that – but neither can we prevent them from shining. Our task is to look upwards, when life is going swimmingly, and when it is not, and to reflect back the glory that is above. When we live this way, we share with all people our true identity. In her fine sermon last week, Brittany, our seminarian, preached about aspects of our identity that we are willing to make fully known to others, and she issued the warm invitation to take risks in making ourselves known to others, as we are fully known to God, our maker. This week our texts invite us especially to make known that part of ourselves which is the image of God. This is one aspect of our true identity, and is the source of our innate ability to shine with God’s glory.
We are ordinary. But as we see in the face of Moses and in the figure of Christ, the ordinary is actually quite extraordinary. The disciples see that in a flash and they just can’t process or grasp the magnitude of the glory in the sight before their eyes. What is ordinary is quite extraordinary. And still simple! Everything ordinary has around it the sheen of the extraordinary - the glory, the blest – and that is its true nature. Sometimes we glimpse the halo around it; much of the time we don’t see it. I resonate deeply with the insight of one theologian on our transfiguring texts. Thomas Currie says,
“Vincent van Gogh painted a number of ordinary objects: a yellow chair, a vase of sunflowers, a collection of small sailboats beached by the sea. Among his compositions is a painting of a pair of old work boots, almost worn out, each boot leaning against the other. At first glance, nothing could appear more ordinary or un-glorious. But as one looks at the painting, one notices that the boots are illumined from beyond that painting and that they describe a life not just of labor and toil, but of vast human dignity, even beauty. The boots are glorious, not because their style is chic, but because it is their peculiar splendor to reflect the humanity that has labored so long and so hard in their use. These boots cry out that their owner was made for the glory of God, that to be a human being is to be a glory-bearing, glory-reflecting, glory-bound creature. That is surely the meaning of such transfiguring glory: to see in its brightness an anticipation of the glory of the risen Lord and to find in him the destiny of every ‘ordinary’ life.”
I wrote this sermon at the dining room table in our house. It is not fancy; it’s a solid cherry drop-leaf table that comfortably seats six. It’s a bit dinged up at this point – more than 100 years of use mean that there are some gouges and ridges, some natural imperfections in the wood, some small, very old burn spots. The varnish is coming off on the ends, where my kids, when they were small, once exhibited their artwork in an independent moment using some packing tape they had found. It’s a modest but gracious antique dining table. But it was bought by my great-grandparents probably at the turn of the 20th century, and my grandmother and her sisters grew up eating at it. Then my mother and her sisters did, then my sister and me, and now my own two kids. The humanity of the generations who have pulled up their chairs to the table to eat their food is so palpable. They are there. Their laughter is there. Their fights. Each of them “made for the glory of God, [for] to be a human being is to be a glory-bearing, glory-reflecting, glory-bound creature.”
So are we all. So are the people whose halos are really not obvious to us right now, people we see all around. But each one carries within them the image of God. It is our task to look for the signs of God’s glory in them, and to magnify back to them the glory that rests upon us. Perhaps you are not feeling so glorious at the moment? The good news is that our ability to shine with glory has nothing to do with how we feel about ourselves, or what others may think of us, or how well or badly we are facing any challenge. God provides the glory; our job is to look upwards for it that we may catch and reflect its beams.
The glory of God can terrify or confuse, but let us only let it confirm in us our desire to be people who shine with glory as well. To be shiners will be our way to testify at all times to the One who is our salvation. Our reflection of God’s glory will be our message to all that we know the power that even overcomes death; we know that God’s love is stronger than the grave; we see acts of mercy all around us performed by the God who is love. So many people are desperate for any sign of God’s glory. Let us make ourselves willing vessels for God to use in this way.
Thomas W. Currie, “Theological Perspective” on Exodus 34:29-35, Feasting on the Word, Year C, pp. 434-438, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor.