Tomorrow, the Church reflects on the Transfiguration of our Lord. It is an astonishing story, profoundly pastoral and deeply political. In a light-diffusing cloud on a hilltop, Jesus makes conference with Moses and Elijah, two great figures of his people’s past, concerning his imminent exodus (or departure, as the English renders it).
Moses, of course, led his people out from slavery in Egypt. The gods of the Egyptians had stopped their ears against the cries of a shepherding people living in the north of their kingdom, conscripted into city-building. Yahweh, the god of the Hebrews, the god who hears, heard their cry. In a series of plagues, Yahweh permitted the gods of Egypt to experience pain; restoring equilibrium whenever their spokesperson, the Pharaoh, cried out. Yet time after time, they rose up again, hardening their hearts. Eventually, Yahweh, descending in a pillar of cloud, led out his people, through the parted waters of the Sea, and to a mountain in the Sinai peninsula, on which the cloud of Yahweh’s presence settled. Moses, alone, was permitted to approach within the cloud, granted audience.
Some eight hundred years later, the people of Israel were reeling under the totalitarian rule of their queen, Jezebel. Promoting the uprising of the Canaanite gods, under the lordship of the sky-and-lightning god Baal, she had countless worshippers of Yahweh put to death. Elijah had already been evading the authorities and performing miracles for several years by the time of his confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Again, the matter at hand is over who hears the cry of their people. Baal is deaf to the cries of his prophets; Yahweh hears and responds to Elijah’s voice.
But in the immediate aftermath of Yahweh’s victory, and the breaking of a three-year drought—equilibrium restored, in the heavenly realms and so on earth—Elijah, fearing for his life, runs all the way to Sinai, and the mountain on which Moses had met with God. There, Yahweh meets with him, opening Elijah’s ears to the cry of thousands of other faithful worshippers in hiding, initiating the events that will lead to the overthrow of an oppressive political regime, and identifying a successor for Elijah, who will be taken up into heaven, no longer to be found on earth, as Moses before him.
Some eight hundred years on again, and it is Jesus on the hilltop. His people live under the occupying rule of Rome, before whose sky-and-lightning god Jupiter all must bow or be crushed. Once more, a confrontation is coming, between an unmoving god and a god who is moved by what he hears. A god whose greatest word through Moses was, ‘Hear, O Israel ...’ and a god who declares to Jesus’ disciples, ‘... listen to him.’
So Jesus and Moses and Elijah are in conference concerning Jesus’ exodus, which will take place in Jerusalem. His going outside the city, to suffer and die, familiar words from the psalms on his lips, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me?’ Words, heard, by Yahweh who moves, restoring life, raising Jesus from death on the third day, followed forty days later by his ascension, his returning to the Father, taken up in a cloud.
Luke’s first audience would have heard this story in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the levelling of the temple at the hands of the Roman army. The victory of Jupiter over this minor people. And yet, the Transfiguration. The promise of things to come. Of another exodus, a saving out from the hands of the gods, the Roman pantheon that would bow before the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ as the Church brought reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, women and men, slaves and freeborn, children and fathers. As the cries of the oppressed were heard and responded to. Not a reversal of fortunes, but a return to harmonious peace.
In many parts of the world today, our sisters and brothers are experiencing persecution on account of their faith, in the name of other gods, other ideologies. Their cries are not unheard, and neither are the silent cries of their oppressors, who perpetrate violence against themselves. Tomorrow, the Church reflects on the Transfiguration of our Lord. It is an astonishing story, profoundly pastoral and deeply political.