Transfiguration and a New Exodus
The Sunday before the beginning of Lent is often known as ‘Transfiguration Sunday’. This refers to a curious story in the gospels that takes place before Jesus enters his final journey toward Jerusalem.
Luke 9:28-36: About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying. While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen.
Although this is an unusual account, when the gospel writers tell this story they’re aware that there are numerous references to the Hebrew scriptures that their audience will pick up on. In particular, there are references to the central narrative of the Hebrew scriptures; the Exodus out of slavery in ancient Egypt.
In the Exodus story — after the Israelites have escaped from their Egyptian enslavers – Moses ascends a mountain, the mountain is covered in cloud, God speaks, and the people are led toward their freedom. In this narrative, ancient Egypt is a symbol of oppression, injustice, systemic exploitation and abuse. And God leads this group of suffering slaves on an Exodus journey into a different kind of future.
In the transfiguration story, Jesus stands on a mountain with Moses, there is a cloud, God speaks, and Jesus talks to both Moses and Elijah about his “departure”. But the word he actually uses here is the 1st century Greek word ‘Exodus’.
Jesus is enacting a new exodus.
But this time it’s not just to bring about freedom for a certain group of slaves; it is to reach into the very heart of humanness itself, and lead us all on an exodus out of dehumanisation and toward life, flourishing, and possibility. Jesus invites us to follow him on a new exodus. To follow him down a path toward a different way of being in the world. Every week we participate in the Eucharist; a meal where we remember the death of Jesus. But the first Eucharist meal was celebrated as part of the Passover tradition; a tradition that stems from when God acted to rescue the oppressed slaves in Egypt in the Exodus narrative. This is a big sweeping cosmic story about liberation, about walking away from systems that are oppressive and dehumanising and into something beautiful.
Not long after this transfiguration story, the gospel writers state that Jesus “resolutely set out for Jerusalem” – some versions say that he “set his face toward Jerusalem”. He was about to enter into the dark journey toward loss. He knew that because of the things he was saying and doing, he was going to be executed. It was inevitable. But he also seemed to know that the dark road that lay ahead of him was somehow going to be a part of the exodus he was bringing about. There was something bigger going on here.
As we enter into Lent, as we anticipate entering the darkness, the nothingness—korekore—we are given this momentary glimpse of the possibility that there is something beautiful, profound and life-changing at work. Heaven and earth coming together, preparing us for a new exodus. It is not being lost and aimless in the dark, instead, during Lent we turn ourselves toward it, as Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem. We let things go, we give things up, we allow ourselves to follow Jesus into the cloud.
And maybe we’ll discover something of our own transfiguration. As we allow ourselves to reflect, to go one an inward journey, as we give things up as a sign of laying something down, we’ll find something new waiting for us, something of possibility, openness and life.