Who Do You Say That I Am? Lenten Series Post #1
“Blinded by the light: Mama always told me not to look into the eyes of the sun.”Bruce Springsteen
The gospel reading for the Last Sunday After the Epiphany is always the Transfiguration. This story occurs in the New Testament immediately after Peter answers Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?” He answered: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”(Matthew 16: 15-16. Immediately after this Jesus took Peter, James, and John up to the top of a high mountain where his glory was revealed in blinding explosion of glory. “His face shone like the sun and his garments became white as light.”(Matthew 17:2). “His garments became glistening, intensely white…they (the disciples) were exceedingly afraid.” (Mark 9: 3).
This story sets the stage for our Lenten journey. It is said that the most important prayer we can offer is for illumination: “God, please let me see you!” The light of the transfigured Christ lights the way to Jerusalem for us. The icon of the Transfiguration attempts to illustrate in paint and gold leaf that truth which cannot be fully described in words.
Jesus in glory dominated the center of the icon. He is depicted in dazzling white garments, and is surrounded by concentric circles of light. At the bottom of the nimbus are three rays of light to remind the viewer that the God who is revealed on the mountaintop is the Holy Trinity. A halo is seen behind Christ’s head. It contains the Greek letters omega, omicron, nu. They are literally translated “the being one” or better translated “He who is”. These are the words God spoke to Moses from the burning bush. The icon reminds us that the God revealed here is the same God who appeared on Mt. Sinai.
“And behold, two men talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory. And they spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem.” (Luke 9: 31). Moses and Elijah are painted here in non-traditional, yet biblical ways. Elijah reaches his hands up to receive bread from a raven. In Kings 17:6, God feeds Elijah twice a day with “bread and flesh” while he is in exile. The icon uses this as a prefiguring of the gift of the Eucharist. Moses is usually shown holding the tablets of the ten commandments. Here he holds a bronze serpent on a cross-shaped staff. The people of Israel suffered from a plague of venomous snakes in the wilderness, so God commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole. All who looked on it were cured of the snakes’ venom. Jesus compares himself to this serpent and here the icon holds it up as a symbol of the crucifixion.
Finally, we see Peter, James, and John cowering in fear before the a light that is ten-thousand times brighter than the sun. They seem to tumble down the mountain, overwhelmed by the event. Luke says “… a cloud came and overwhelmed them and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. They kept silence and told no one in those days what they had seen.” (Luke 9: 34-36).
No wonder they didn’t talk of it! They had stared into what our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters call the “uncreated Light” of the Creator of the universe—the Jesus Christ who is “God from God, Light from light” as we say every Sunday in the Nicene Creed. Words certainly failed them. Perhaps they were afraid of people thinking they were crazy. And what did this really mean? Who is this rabbi who walks with them toward Jerusalem?
That is our perennial Lenten question, too. I can’t wait to see what the new Webb telescope reveals when it opens its gold-plated eyes and peers into the light of beginning of creation. What do our eyes reveal as we seek to see the divine Uncreated Light who is also fully a created one like us? The One who is our companion on life’s journey—whose love and glory will be revealed on a cross outside a city wall.
C. Neal Goldsborough
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog