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By Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD

Exodus 34.29-35  / Psalm 99 /2 Corinthians 3.12-4.2  /  Luke 9.28-36

Alexandr Ivanov, The Transfiuration, 1824 (via Wikimedia Commons)  It’s in the Public Domain.

None of us loves wearing a mask, and most people feel a sense of relief when we take them off. Not only can they be physically uncomfortable, but there is something psychological as well. When I and others are wearing masks, I feel separated. I can’t read facial expressions. Are people smiling, scowling, showing compassion and understanding or irritation and rejection of what I’m saying? It’s a deeply human need to connect face-to-face, sense a person’s needs, their feelings, their attitudes. And it’s often difficult to do that with masks on.

But even without our paper or cloth masks, each of us wears various masks (or personas – the Greek word for mask which comes from Greek theatre). Knowingly or unknowingly, we project onto people around us different aspects of our own personalities. Becoming an integrated, authentic person who is the same in any group of people is almost impossible to achieve because we feel vulnerable and use our masks or personas to protect ourselves.

It’s revealing that unlike leaders of other religions at the time of Moses, who put on a mask when receiving or delivering a message from a god, Moses takes his veil off to face God directly, and he also takes his veil off when he delivers God’s message to the people. Moses is a conduit, a prophet who speaks for God, and the absence of a veil is important – even though he puts it on afterward to protect people from being blinded by the glory of God. God invited the Hebrews into a covenant of intimacy, just as God invites us into intimacy with Godself and one another.

In that context of veils and shining faces, we need to consider what it is about God that Moses is revealing to the people. In the passages before this, in chapters 33 and 34, the Jewish theologian, Gunther Plaut, describes how these passages . . .

“. . . set forth the Torah’s view of God’s nature. In direct or indirect fashion [God] had previously been shown as creator, father of the Patriarchs, Israel’s protector, ruler of history, unique, without form, jealous of other gods, issuing reward and retribution, lawgiver, guardian of the weak, and guarantor of justice.”

That description of Plaut’s sets us up for a new revelation or epiphany. In the passage we read today, God’s relationship with Moses, and through Moses with the people, is sheer being, beauty, glory. “I am that I am.” Impenetrable mystery. The God of the Hebrew tribes is in fact the creator and sustainer of the universe, the naval of the big bang that Father Freeland was talking about a couple of weeks ago.

It is this Lord of Glory that we see in the gospel passages of the Transfiguration. The experience that Peter, James, and John had is the climax of the Epiphany, the showing-forth of God as loving, glorious mystery which we can only approach in this life through the cloud of unknowing. As Paul says in the First Letter to the Corinthians:

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

What a deep longing we have to know and be known, and to see the face of God unveiled – even though the prospect is terrifying. But sometimes we get a glimpse, as in a mirror dimly – a micro-image of the Transfiguration seen out of the corner of our eye, the prayer, in a deep relationship with another person, in loneliness and grief, rejoicing and creativity.

This is the gift that the three disciples are given in the account of the Transfiguration. The experience establishes Jesus as the God whom Moses met on the mountain and whom Elijah met in the mystery of sheer silence. Just as Gunther Plaut shows that Moses meeting God on the mountain reveals a new dimension in God’s revelation to the Hebrews, so in this passage. Previously the God of Glory has been revealed as the tiny, miraculous newborn baby whom the magi came to worship, as the boy Jesus in the temple, as the grown-up rabbi, as a miracle worker, healer, one who can raise from the dead. But now Jesus is revealed as God incarnate, the Word made flesh as John describes him.

You can see why the makers of the Revised Common Lectionary moved this passage from the second Sunday in Lent to the last Sunday in the Epiphany season, because it is in fact the climax of the Epiphany. The Epiphany has been a journey over these past 8 weeks, and now, before we enter on the Lent journey with Jesus, on the way to the cross, we are offered this vision of where the paschal journey is leading.  And that is described most powerfully:

“All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

As Sr. Doreen said so well in her Ash Wednesday reflection, in this journey from glory to glory we can see our own giftedness, our own splendor and glory.

For me, the image of the Transfiguration which you see in Alexandr Ivanov’s glorious painting of the Transfiguration is one I resonate with at a deep level. The primary colours of blue, red and yellow, the cloud cover, the lighter and lighter sky as you look from the top of the picture to the bottom, the light coming from inside the cloud, the barely-visible forms of Moses and Elijah and the veiled – almost hidden – face of Jesus – all these come together in a sense of wonder and beauty which draws us in – I can see myself huddled with James and John, not standing out there visibly like Peter.

Nowhere else is Jesus so clearly identified with God. His face, and that of Moses and Elijah, is so brilliant with the glory of God that the disciples are afraid to look, much as the people around Moses needed to be protected by his veil. But the veil of God’s glory is removed in the incarnation, and the veil of the Temple itself – the earthly manifestation of God’s presence – is torn in two at the time of the crucifixion.

We have an opportunity now, as Lent begins, to uncover our faces – to be more open and vulnerable not only with God but with each other. To show ourselves as lights in the world in these darkest times of the history of the world. We undergird Ukraine and Russia with our prayer, and we can keep before us the image of God in us and around us in our world – in the delicacy and fragility of earth, and in our relationships among one another. We have travelled together through Epiphany to this great moment, and now we begin a journey with each other and Jesus toward the cross, toward the self-giving, unveiled image of God in ourselves.

And so, my sisters and brothers,

“All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”