Some of us are old enough to remember the original name the church used for the Sunday before the season of Lent begins – Quinquigesima Sunday. Somehow it has a more majestic sound to it. In order to be more relevant, the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) no longer uses Latin names for days in the calendar, or for parts of the liturgy. For example, the benediction is now called the “blessing,” which is the close of the service. We have transformed the language of the church in order to be more “user friendly” in a culture that barely knows or appreciates classical language. Although that has been a disappointment for some people, we have survived the transformation.
There is another reason for not calling this Sunday “Quinquigesima” and that is because we now celebrate the Transfiguration of Our Lord, which was originally on the church calendar in August, on the Sunday before Lent begins. That change dates back to the adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary, which is used by all mainline denominations. In fact, with some exceptions, on most Sundays the Roman Catholic Church also uses the same readings. The lectionary creates a common thread which unites us, Christians from many denominations, all proclaiming the same word of God on the same day.
Change is difficult. It is hard to make a transformation from one reality to another; and some changes are more difficult than others. Just as a change in language was meant to reach out to people in a new age, placing the story of The Transfiguration on the Sunday before Lent is meant to serve as a bridge between the season after The Epiphany and Lent. It helps us make that transition in focus from the revelation of Jesus as the messiah to our preparation for Lent, we journey towards the cross and resurrection. Epiphany and the season that follows are marked by a celebration of the revelation of Jesus as the light of the world. During Lent we change things up, we select liturgy and hymns that indicate a more serious and penitential mood. The Lenten journey is not an easy one; it is marked by a determined focus on prayer, fasting (denying ourselves) and alms giving. Our prayers are centered on repentance, with the hope that we will be transformed. To repent means to “turn around,” from our old sinful selves to people who are more compassionate and merciful, more generous and eager to work towards justice for all.
The story of The Transfiguration helps us to see that Jesus had things to reveal that were beyond the way his disciples normally experienced him. He chose three disciples, whom he seems to have set apart from the others in several situations, to accompany him. We know that after Jesus’ resurrection Peter would be commissioned as their leader. Sometimes we get stuck on the fact that Peter wanted to build booths and stay up on the mountain. There is much speculation about his reaction.
One is that this was an extraordinary moment. Up until then Jesus had appeared to be an ordinary person, albeit with unusual power given to him by God. At this event, not only was he lit up “like a beacon” as one person describes it, but the gap between life and death was bridged by the presence of Moses and Elijah. Think about how amazing it is that Peter, James and John accept the fact that both figures, long dead but still central to their faith, were really present on that mountain top. It seems natural that Peter would want such a moment to continue.
Commentator Karoline Lewis has a different take on it. She thinks “Peter’s issue is the realization that if Jesus changes, then Peter will be changed as well.” Perhaps he reasoned that he could no longer be the same, he would also be transformed, and maybe he was afraid of that happening. It seems logical that if they pitched some tents and stayed there for a while, eventually this theophany – a revelation of God – would be over. Perhaps when they emerged from the tents the next morning everything would be as it was.
Let’s face it, sometimes we have to be forced, kicking and screaming, to make changes in our lives. Sometimes it is much easier to try and hide, to pull the covers over our heads and ignore the need for change. Immediately before this event Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Messiah. That was a game changer in their regard for him, from a gifted and compassionate rabbi to the fulfillment of divine prophecy. After The Transfiguration those disciples who witnessed it looked at Jesus in a whole new way. Now they knew for sure that the rabbi whose teaching they followed was definitely more than just another enlightened person with some impressive powers. They saw him transformed, and even more importantly they heard God speak to them directly – “This is my son, the beloved, listen to him!” There is no ambiguity in that powerful declaration of love and proof of the divine relationship between Jesus and his father.
The disciples were transformed by this experience, and unfortunately for them Jesus did not make it any easier by telling them to keep it to themselves. Can you imagine how difficult it must have been to say nothing about such a unique experience? The gospels of Matthew and Luke also include that command to be silent from Jesus to Peter, James and John, but the messianic secret is a central theme in Mark. Our gospel stories from the last two Sundays included demons who recognized Jesus, evil forces that understood his power over them, yet he did not let them identify who he was to the crowds. Mark will insist that Jesus never fully revealed his identity, it will only be revealed in the words of the centurion at the foot of the cross, “surely this man was the Son of God.” Only these three disciples, Peter, James and John, were permitted to have his identity revealed to them at this point in his ministry by witnessing The Transfiguration.
The Transfiguration does serve as a good bridge between the seasons of Epiphany and Lent. Our celebration of Jesus as the light of the world becomes the bright beacon of the Transfiguration. As commentator Matt Skinner describes it, “It is a light that affirms life, a light that shines ahead into Lent to keep that season in perspective, never without hope and confidence.” This light speaks a promise that God is here, and that God is knowable. God seeks relationship with us, because God is life. That allows us to share the Lenten journey with Jesus, a move from divine choice and glory, to heartache and rejection, to abuse and imprisonment, to injustice and death.
Naturally Peter said it was good to be there. In spite of the fact that it must have been a pretty terrifying experience, it still felt safer than facing a life which was now changed by what they had experienced. Most of us prefer the safe way, we like routine, we are daunted by change. Say what we want about the disciples and their slowness to understand who Jesus really is, ultimately, they allowed themselves to be transformed by their faith in him. That gives us the courage to allow ourselves to accept change and to be transformed by God. Amen.