Last Sunday in Epiphany - February 19, 2023
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
Exodus 24:12-18 + Psalm 99 + 2 Peter 1:16-21 + Matthew 17:1-9
Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I speak to you today in the name of the + Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.
38.0958º N, 122.8874º W.
If those numbers do not warm your heart or evoke breathtaking visions of beauty and transcendence it is because you have not yet memorized the geographical coordinates of what we otherwise, and more commonly call, Mt. Vision. Now that’s better…isn’t it?
Aptly named, the summit of Mt. Vision ascends some 1,282 feet, boasting spectacular views of Point Reyes National Seashore, spanning from the Pacific on one side, to Tomales Bay on the other. A holy place, to be sure: The panoramic beauty and magnificence of which, would seem to blend and blur the very boundaries between heaven and earth.
The term Pan-Oramic comes from the combination of two Greek words: Pan (all) and Horama (which is a sight, a thing seen, or an appearance). So, “Pan-horama” is a full-view, a complete vision, or all-embracing appearance of something...or as the case may be, “of someone.”
And it is indeed this word, Horama, that Matthew employs to describe the Transfiguration as we heard proclaimed in the gospel today: Jesus says to Peter, James, and John as they descend from the mountain: “Tell no one about this vision (this “horama”) until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” It is the same word Luke uses in Acts to describe the vision of Moses as he kneels, unshod, before the Burning Bush as we read in Acts 7:31:
“When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight (the “horama”); and as he approached to look, there came the voice of the Lord, ‘I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’” [and so on…].
As is made clear here, one of the characteristic theological insights of ancient Israel among her surrounding pagan nations was the intuition that God is first and foremost revealed not as one seen but as one heard.
Unlike the pagan gods whose idols were strewn throughout temples, erected in city squares, and nestled in nooks throughout the homes of their devotees; the God of Israel was, by stark contrast, invisible.
Unlike the pagan gods who were identified with the displays of nature’s brute power, the God of Israel transcended all of nature and its powers, enthroned eternally in light inaccessible, and thus revealed throughout the history of Israel as the Word spoken, and in the history of Christianity the Word-Made-Flesh. A revelation spoken at times with a booming voice from behind thick clouds and darkness, at times from the unquenchable fires of a burning bush, and at times in the gentle whisper of a still small voice.
Yet each of these revelations in Israel’s history are woven together by their respective locations atop a mountain, apart from the din and distraction of society, where earth stretches to meet heaven, and heaven bends low to kiss the holy ground of creation.
A trembling Moses before the burning bush, a hooded Elijah at the mouth of a cave, and awe-struck disciples before the transfigured Christ! Upon each of these mountain tops, with every vision, every “horama,” there is given a holy word: A voice which gives a command, an interpretation, an insight, a mission. To Moses: “Go! Save my people!” To Elijah, “Go! anoint my king!” To the Disciples, “This is my beloved, listen to him!”
Thus, we should not be surprised that these great pillars of the Law and the Prophets – Moses and Elijah – having long since departed from the realm of men, are nevertheless mystically present at the Transfiguration. In fact, in his telling of this event, Matthew, in particular, goes to great lengths to demonstrate the continuity between Israel and this new revelation in Jesus.
Only in his version, for example, does he describe the face of Jesus to “shine like the sun” (Mt. 17:2) – an unmistakable reference to Exodus 34:29, where the face of Moses is said to have shined brightly forever-after his encounter with God on Sinai. Yet, Matthew makes clear, while Moses was the recipient of divine radiance, in the transfiguration, Jesus is shown to be the source.
Indeed, as the gospel attests, both of these figures, Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets of Israel, are now to be interpreted through Christ. That is to say, Christ becomes the lens through which all of scripture and all of history are to be properly understood and interpreted.
From time immemorial the mystique of deserted places and mountain tops, lonely sea shores and dark forests have allured us, lead us, indeed spoken to us of transfiguration: Sacred realms we are able to glimpse, if even for a moment, beyond the veil between what we know. But once there, once seen, once heard: the summons, the command, the revealed word in ever Horama always calls us to but one direction: Return.
Out of the forest, down the mountain, we are summoned to return to the mess and muck of human society, where we see only too plainly that moments of transfiguration never occur for their own sake, but that we too might be transfigured. Indeed, that we too might become agents in the transfiguration of the world, precisely for having been given the gift of momentarily piercing beyond the veil.
It is legitimate to ask, then, “To whom did the transfiguration happen: Christ or the disciples who were with him?” In other words, are we to imagine that Christ actually changed his outward appearance – was indeed ‘transfigured’ – or were the disciples given a momentary vision that enabled them to see through, to see beyond the normal limitations of our sight to what Christ actually looked like all the time!
In other words, perhaps what we call the Transfiguration is in fact a grace, a gift of vision (Horama) in which the disciples of all generations – including our own – are able to see Christ as he is. Indeed, perhaps it is the grace to see in the faces of those around us the very face of Christ ever-radiant, ever resplendent, ever divinized?
Perhaps we might dare hope that transfiguration is not merely a rare privileged moment of but a few disciples in the past, but a possibility offered to all of us. A gift that holds out for each of us the transformative power to unalterably shift our present state of mind. Indeed, a summons to discipleship grounded in the perception of Christ radiant in all things.
Perhaps we have all experienced moments of transfiguration when what we have come to think of as a “normal” state of mind is, in fact, unveiled as a transitory, fleeting, and thus illusory state of mind.
Where we realize that the routine perception of things is in fact ‘the ALTERED state?’ Altered by judgment, prejudice, fear, anger, resentment: in a word – Ego! Veiling our inability to see ourselves for who we really are: shining, radiant, members of Christ’s mystical body. Not an altered state, but a dropping away of those things which hold us from fully living the Present State. The grace to suspend judgment in order to make room for awe.
Much like the awe afforded us by mountain peaks, whereby distant horizons, always there, but otherwise unseen, are granted to us with a breathtaking and expansive vision.
32.6866° N, 35.3902° E.
Sound familiar? Probably not to the disciples either. But in that very spot we honor today the summit of a 1,929-foot hill known as Mt. Tabor, that obtrusively rises out of an otherwise near-endless valley; That is the purported site where the first transfiguration blurred the very boundaries between heaven and earth itself.
The First. But not the last.
+ Father, Son and Holy Spirit.