SJF • Last Epiphany B • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.+
Throughout the season since the Epiphany in early January we have been exploring concepts revolving around perception, knowledge and belief. We have reflected on why and how we have come to believe in God, and how our faith and our belief changes our lives, transforms and transfigures our lives, and how we spread and share that faith, the faith in our own transfiguration through God. This Last Sunday after the Epiphany is no exception.
Today we return to the theme with which the season began, when we spoke of that old blind priest Eli and the attentive boy Samuel. The theme is vision and perception — partial or, more precisely in the case of our readings today, on again and off again. Now you see it, now you don’t.
The transitory nature of revelation seems characteristic of the way that God deals with — and appears to — humanity. God does not, it seems, choose to reveal himself in permanent form, but in transitory glimpses, passing appearances. Revelation is not a constant stream, but more like one of those fountains that pulses and pauses. You will recall that in the story of the young Samuel the passage began by saying that visions were rare and the voice of God was not often heard — until, that is, God revealed himself to the boy Samuel with news that made every ear in Israel tingle. Recall also that when God appeared to Moses at the first, it was not as a rock or a monument but as a burning bush; and when God was revealed to the whole people of Israel it was not in a form like a mountain, but in the form of a cloud that descended upon the mountain. God was a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night — not a thing like the gods of the Egyptians, idols of metal or stone. God was not an object, like the Golden Calf that the Israelites foolishly tried to substitute for the living God who had chosen them to be his people.
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So it is that God — constant as God is in his own being — did not reveal himself with a kind of permanent constancy in those bygone days. We can see an echo of this in the account of Elijah’s being whisked away by God, and the clear message to his disciple Elisha concerning it: Keep your eyes open and watchful — if you see me being taken from you, you will inherit that double share you asked for; but if not, not. Indeed, when it happens, it is so quick and astounding, all fiery chariot and horses and whirlwind so that Elisha only has time to cry out to his vanishing father in God before he is taken from his sight. Now you see him, now you don’t.
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One might say that Elijah performs a similar guest appearance, and disappearance, on the mount of the Transfiguration. Joining Moses as the representative of the Law, Elijah as the spokesman for the Prophets appears to the wondering eyes of Peter, and James and John, there on the mountaintop, conversing with Jesus. And sure enough, as soon as Peter the Big Fisherman opens his big mouth — trying to prolong the vision by building dwellings, instead of accepting the transitory revelation for what it is — as soon as Peter tries to lay hold on it, make it permanent, a cloud envelopes them and God himself has the last word: this is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him! And suddenly, Elijah, Moses and the cloud are gone, and only Jesus remains. Now you see him... and now you see him still!
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But isn’t that the point, after all. Jesus is still with us. He is the final revelation of God, the very image of God — the last word, as indeed he was the first Word, the Word who was in the beginning with God. and who was, and is, God, and who has appeared to us in these latter days for our sake and for our salvation. So at the Transfiguration it is not Jesus who disappears — he is the one who remains, and is the one to whom the others defer as they step from the stage: even God the Father himself, turning the microphone over to his Son and telling that small audience, “Listen to him.”
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Lent is about to begin this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, and during it we will journey with our Lord on up to Calvary on Good Friday, and through the Holy Saturday vigil as he lies in the tomb, and then on to the great celebration of his rising on Easter Day. Over those three days we will take part in that last great game of peekaboo that God played with his children — now you see him, now you don’t — and again after a little while you see him once again, but then, at the last, for ever.
God played peekaboo with his children when they were young, but now that we are growing to maturity in Christ the time for the games of childhood is past. Good Friday was the last time God in Christ ever said to humanity, “Now you can’t see me!” ... and then, again, we see.
Easter put an end to that, when the light shone out of the darkness, shining into our hearts to give the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord, who, behold, is with us always, even unto the end of the age. His Father wants us to listen to him, and he himself wants us to walk with him, in his presence and by his light, every day of our lives. Let us do as he commands, our mission high fulfilling, and follow him where he leads.+