Fly on a Wall

Fly on a Wall

Homily for the Feast of the Transfiguration

August 6, 2023

Fly on a Wall

Homily for August 6, 2023
The Feast of the Transfiguration
Luke 9:28–36

Wouldn’t you love to have been a “fly on a wall” and to hear, for example, what General Washington said to his men as they crossed the Delaware River?  Or to hear, say, what exactly the Queen and Winston Churchill talked about during their weekly meetings?  Or to hear what Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin said to each other when they were roommates for those nine turbulent weeks in Arles in the summer of 1888?  There are any number of times that I would have loved to have been a “fly on a wall” and to hear what people actually said to each other.  In today’s Gospel text, Luke gives us the opportunity to be “fly on a wall,” as it were, and to hear what Jesus spoke about up on the mountain with Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration.  And I want to get back to being a “fly on a wall” and to what exactly Jesus and Moses and Elijah spoke about, but first, today’s Gospel text…

Today’s Gospel text, the story of the Transfiguration (the Feast we celebrate today), is a mysterious and rich text that some interpreters connect to two major festivals of the Jewish liturgical year, two that follow in close succession in the fall: Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and a week later, Sukkoth (“The Festival of Booths”).  This morning Luke writes that “about eight days” before today’s story, Peter confessed Jesus to be the Christ—“‘But who do you say that I am?’” Jesus asked his disciples.  “Peter answered, ‘The Messiah of God’” (Luke 9:20).  Peter’s confession parallels on the Day of Atonement the high priest’s once-every-year saying in the Holy of Holies the name “YHWH.”  If the High Priest on the Day of Atonement said the sacred name “YHWH,” Peter in his confession called Jesus, “The Messiah of God.”  And today, “about eight days after these sayings, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and went up the mountain” where—as many Jewish families today still make booths in their yards on Sukkoth, to remember Israel’s time in the wilderness (Lev 23:43)—Peter offered to “make… dwellings [or “booths,” as some translations say] one for [Jesus], one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

Here, in quick succession in the story of the Transfiguration, the Synoptics gather up in the person of Jesus two of the major Jewish festivals.  It is as though the Synoptics, when—eight days before the Transfiguration and the Festival of Booths—Peter confessed Jesus to be “The Messiah of God,” are suggesting that Jesus himself now embodies the divine name, YHWH, spoken by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement in the Holy of Holies.  It is as though the Synoptics are suggesting that Jesus himself is the embodiment of the Torah, the Temple, and all the liturgy that happens within it.  It is Jesus, boldly suggest the Synoptics in this text about the Transfiguration, who now embodies the holy name, and who now is the one who atones for us.  

And Peter’s offer to make booths is a fitting response to the Transfiguration because, if Peter’s confession parallels the Day of Atonement, so does Peter’s offer to make dwellings parallel the Festival of Booths (which remembers Israel’s time in the wilderness).  If Jesus is now the embodiment of the sacred name and the one who atones for us, so (suggest the Synoptics) Jesus also is the one ultimately celebrated in the Festival of Booths: it is Jesus who set and sets his people free, it is Jesus who led and leads his people through the wilderness, it is Jesus who sustained and sustains us and brings us to the Promised Land.  The story of the Transfiguration makes bold claims about the divinity of Jesus, suggesting that Jesus is the embodiment of YHWH, and that it is he, Jesus, who ultimately has been and is responsible for the salvation of his people.

[By the way: It is the so-called “Synoptic,” or “common vision” Gospels, of Matthew, Mark and Luke, that tell the story of the Transfiguration.  John’s Gospel makes similar claims about Jesus’ divinity, but does so differently than do the Synoptics.]

Luke’s account of the Transfiguration offers an additional dimension to the Transfiguration that Matthew and Mark do not.  Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke offers a “fly on the wall” perspective that listens in on what Jesus spoke about with Moses and Elijah.  Luke writes,

Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him [to Jesus]. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

They “were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”  That is, they were speaking of his crucifixion.  By inserting this “fly-on-the-wall” detail into the story, Luke overtly bends the arc of the Transfiguration towards the crucifixion, which is the correct “lens” through which to “read” the Transfiguration.  “Jesus’ divinity belongs with the cross—only when we put the two together do we recognize Jesus correctly” (Pope Benedict, in Jesus of Nazareth.)  Only when we recognize the extent of God’s love for us, that Jesus, the embodiment of YHWY, “laid down his life for us” (I John 3:16), do we recognize Jesus correctly.

The Transfiguration at its core is a love event, a manifestation of God’s love—for us!—in which Jesus gathers up into himself all the Day of Atonement, the entirety of the Festival of Booths, to assure us that God loves us: that it is in Jesus that our fallen nature is restored, that he is the one who will atone and bring us near to the heart of the Father (John 1:18).  The Transfiguration is a love event that affirms God’s love for us: that God’s son Jesus sustains us in our “wilderness,” that it is he who gives bread that, if we eat of it, we will never hunger; that it is he who gives water that, if we drink of it, we will never thirst (e.g., John 6:35).  Through his atoning sacrifice on the cross, Jesus not only shows his love but—as Gregory of Nyssa wrote in the 4th century—completes the Incarnation, the Transfiguration and “Festival of Booths” all in one.  Until Christ and the cross, writes Gregory,

The true Feast of Tabernacles had not yet come… [but] God, the Lord of all things, has revealed himself to us in order to complete the construction of the tabernacle of our ruined habitation, human nature (De Anima).

By his crucifixion Jesus reconstructed our “booth,” our physical body, raising it up from its decay to stand in the glory, and in the love, of the Son and of the Father, upon the mountain.

Every Sunday at the celebration of the Eucharist, we are offered a “fly-on-the-wall” moment.  In the Eucharist we glimpse and listen in on Jesus… as he is on the cross, as he is in the Holy of Holies on Day of Atonement, as he is at the Festival of Booths, as he is Transfigured before them on the mountain, and as he is raised in glory.  And if we allow ourselves, these symbols of bread and wine, his body and blood, can remind us of God’s love for us, a love that will gather up not only ourselves and souls but our bodies, restoring and reconstructing our fallen “booths” and raising us up that we might draw close and repose with him upon the heart of Christ, who in turn is close to the Father’s heart (John 19:23 and 1:14).


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