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Introduction To The Scripture For Transfiguration Sunday - Year C
Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; II Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:29-43

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman ( of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

Transfiguration - Year C

EXODUS 34:29-35          This is an imaginative description of what might
have happened after Moses came face to face with God.  Moses had been in
the very presence of God to receive the commandments.  His brother Aaron
and all the Israelites knew this because his face shone.  This strange
phenomenon symbolized that these commandments had come from God, not from
Moses himself.  The shining presence in God(s messenger represented the
divine authority behind the commandments.

PSALM 99                 This is the last of a series of psalms used in the
temple ritual, which some scholars believe celebrated the enthronement of
God as Israel(s ruler at the new year festival.  It focuses on God's
justice and praises God for providential and merciful guidance throughout
Israel's history from the time of Moses onward.

2 CORINTHIANS 3:12-4:2.   Because Paul had quite another purpose in mind,
he reinterpreted the story of Moses covering his shining face with a veil.
He declared that God's authority comes not from the commandments Moses
brought to the Israelites, but from the risen Christ who is now present
with the church through the gift of the Spirit.  So the church is able to
speak truthfully and authoritatively for God as it proclaims the gospel.

LUKE 9:29-43             Luke tells of the transfiguration of Jesus with
the same Old Testament lesson in mind to make the same point Paul made:
Jesus represents God and God(s authority along with Moses and Elijah.  The
healing of the epileptic child proves that this is no pious hope, but a
spiritual reality breaking in upon the natural scheme of things in a
distressed world.  Our troubled time needs to hear this hopeful message.

EXODUS 34:29-35   The tendency of biblical scholarship since the beginning
of the critical inquiry has been to dissect the whole of the Pentateuch,
including the Book of Exodus, into source documents authored by unknown
hands at different periods of Israel's history and finally edited into a
composite whole.  This fragmentation detracted from what many scholars now
see in the Book of Exodus: the foundational book of holy scripture, for
Jews and Christians alike. 

No one denies that the structure of Exodus is composite; but it also may be
seen as a deliberately structured whole designed for a particular
theological purpose.  In chapters 33 and 34 this purpose becomes clear.  In
the renewal of the covenant and the presentation of a second set of stone
tablets bearing Yahweh's commandments, the presence of Yahweh among
Yahweh's chosen people is revealed in all its glory.  This above all else,
despite Israel's persistent apostasy and the continued opposition of
Israel's enemies, formed the central point around which all subsequent
Jewish history, ritual and faith revolved.  This passage presents an
imaginative description of what might have happened after Moses came face
to face with God.
A tent where Moses met face to face with Yahweh (33:7-11) represented the
divine *shekinah,* (usually described as "the radiant glory," but
literally, "the dwelling" or "that which dwells").  In the ensuing
dialogue, Yahweh renewed the covenant with Israel based on mercy and grace,
not on Israel's obedience (34:6-7).  In this lesson we have a description
of how the people of Israel recognized that this had happened: the shekinah
was reflected in the shining face of Moses.  This strange phenomenon of the
shining presence in Yahweh's messenger symbolized that the commandments and
the covenant of promise had come from Yahweh, not from Moses himself.  Much
the same phenomenon is used today in democracies where laws are promulgated
in the name of the nation as a whole (e.g. the United States of America) or
the symbolic representation of the nation, (e.g. the monarch).  This
representation embodied by Moses provided Israel with its unique identity
as the chosen people and gave the commandments, the divinely mandated
response to this special relationship, ultimate authority in the daily life
of Israel.

The issue confronting us in this text has to do with our authority for
representing Jesus Christ and the living God in our daily lives.  A growing
number of people have turned to meditation as a means of reconnecting their
lives with the divine authority they seek to practice.  We owe much of the
revival of this facet of our Christian tradition to our Roman Catholic
ecumenical partners.  A number of devotional web sites have been created to
assist those unfamiliar with this practice.  These include such sites as
the World Center for Christian Meditation ( ; Dr. Phil
St. Romain's *Shalom Place: The Heartland Center for Spirituality,*
(; and *Sacred Space*
(  Another helpful source for guided
meditations is the book and CD, *The Healing Oasis* by Sharon Moon with
Gary Sprague, composer and musician, issued by The United Church Publishing
House in 1998.  While these practices may not recreate for us the
experience of the divine *shekinah*, they may in and of themselves be
useful spiritual practices in our anxious age when we seem to have little
or no control over our lives.

PSALM 99   According to some scholars, this is the last of a series of
psalms used in the temple ritual, probably sung in two or more parts, to
celebrate the enthronement of Yahweh as mythical sovereign of the universe
as well as of Israel.  Scholars have included Psalms 47; 93; 96-99 in this
series.  This ritual was thought to have been based on non-Jewish
traditions adapted for use in Israel at the new year festival.  Such
celebrations are known to have been common in Babylonian, Ugarit and
Moabite traditions.  Other scholars dispute this interpretation and regard
these as psalms for the Sabbath rather than for the new year.  On the other
hand, they may reflect some particular but indeterminate historical
situation.  The data is insufficient to prove any of these points of view.

Most likely the psalm dates from the time of Zerubbabel at the end of the
6th century BC, when the temple was being rebuilt following the return of
the exiles from Babylon.  As several prophetic references indicate, there
was an awakening of Messianism during this period. (Haggai 2:2-9, 20-23;
Zechariah 3:8; 4:8-11; 6:11-12.)  Messianism and monarchy were inextricably
linked in the theology of the later books of the OT and inter-testamental

As we have it now, the psalm celebrates Yahweh(s holiness and justice, and
praises Yahweh for providential and merciful guidance throughout Israel's
history from the time of Moses onward.  In vss.6-7 there is a reference to
Moses, Aaron and Samuel as priests representing the people before Yahweh
and receiving from Yahweh the terms of the covenantal relationship as we
have seen described in Exodus 33-34.  This is no easy transaction based on
special favour.  Vs.8 stipulates that it is the forgiving nature of God
which maintains the relationship, while at the same time avenging Israel's

The psalm ends with a summons to worship in the sacred temple on the holy
mountain of Jerusalem.  In the television clips one sees of the Western
Wall in Jerusalem, one can quickly discern the persistent sense of holiness
and total identification which modern Israelis exhibit toward the site of
the temple.  I have been there and shared in the practice of praying at
what is believed to be all that is left of the temple created by Herod. 
One feels a certain empathy for this attitude.  Sadly, this same attitude
is not extended to the magnificent Islamic mosques which tower over the
site and which are just as sacred and worshipful as the Western Wall.  Yet
these holy sites have been the source of much anguish and conflict between
Jews and Moslems for more than the past half century.

2 CORINTHIANS 3:12-4:2   One of the significant facets of biblical
interpretation comes to the fore in this passage.  Whatever its original
meaning, a specific passage may be used by a later author/interpreter to
make a point quite different from that intended by the original author.
This was a common practice of NT authors as may seen from their frequent
quotations from the only scriptures they knew, the Hebrew scriptures.  They
had before them the Greek translation of the Hebrew text composed in the
3rd century BCE by Jews living in Alexandria, Egypt.  They freely
reinterpreted their selected quotations to convey a message relevant to
their own context without regard to the intent of the original passage.
Their purpose was to proclaim Jesus of Nazareth as the long promised
Messiah/Christ.  Don't we still do that all the time, often in polemical
voice as Paul seems to have used here?  

Behind this passage stands the OT lesson from Exodus 34.  Paul refers
directly to the time Moses covered his shining face with a veil.  Because
he has quite another purpose in mind, Paul saw in this story another
interpretation of how the divine presence and truth are authoritatively
expressed.  Throughout chs. 2 & 3 Paul has been expounding the validity of
his apostleship.  His confidence in doing so, he claims, is dependent on
the superiority of the new covenant he and other apostles preach.  He makes
a rather negative reference to the shekinah reflected in Moses' face (vs.7)
which is now fading because the old covenant is being set aside.  That old
covenant simply condemned the Israelites, it did not save them, he claims.
Now, however, the new covenant justifies believers; it establishes a right
relationship with God which the old covenant failed to do.  He goes so far
as to liken the veil over Moses' shining face to the veil he claims lies
over the minds of the people of Israel because they refuse to believe in

This may sound to us blatantly anti-Semitic; and so it has been
interpreted.  Let's not deny it as many Christians still do so.  One of the
reasons Paul was so fiercely opposed by his fellow Jews was their belief
that he had abandoned the sacred tradition that Israel alone was God's
chosen people.  In fact, Paul was trying to say that the old covenant was
not wrong, but that it was incomplete.  It was but one step along the way
to the full revelation of God's nature and God's saving love as Jesus
Christ had made this known.  How do we feel when radical Christian
interpreters (e.g. Bishop John Spong) declare that our present
understanding of the orthodox Christian tradition is just as incomplete?

The metaphor of the veil covering Moses face and so veiling the minds of
believers from the truth in Christ plays an unusually large place in this
passage.  William Barclay has some interesting insights about this veil and
how it still may affect us through prejudice, wishful thinking, fragmentary
thinking, disobedience or an unteachable spirit. 

Paul goes on to declare that the relationship of Christians in Corinth with
God and God's authority in their lives comes not from the commandments of
Moses, but from the risen Christ who is now present with the church through
the gift of the Spirit.  So the church is able to speak truthfully and
authoritatively for God as it proclaims the gospel.  What is more, now that
they (and by inference, we also) behold the presence of God fully revealed
in Jesus Christ and the Spirit, we are being transformed into his likeness.
This transformation is not effected by us, but by the Spirit of Jesus
Christ himself.

LUKE 9:29-43   Who really knows exactly what Transfiguration means?  The
word itself translates the well-known Greek term, *metamorphoo* (English =
metamorphose).  One is compelled to ask not what it means, but if it really
happened.  Since the 2nd century CE it has been the subject of much
speculative interpretation.  Was it, as 2 Peter claims a verification of
the Second Coming (2 Pet:1:16-18)?  Was it a misplaced tradition of a
post-resurrection appearance to Peter, James and John?  Was it, as Matthew
17:9 declared, a vision?  Was it a kerygmatic story created by the
apostolic church to teach that the messiahship of Jesus was supported by
the law and the prophets?
Writing for a Gentile faith community living in a different context, Luke
drew on the same Old Testament lesson from Exodus 34 as Paul had in writing
to the Corinthians.  He wanted to make the same point Paul made, but he
said it in a very different way without the polemical attitude Paul voiced.
He told this story to point out that Jesus is the one who represents the
divine presence in the world and possesses divine authority and power to
save.  But Luke did not see Jesus as abrogating the old covenant in the
same way many believe Paul had done.  He saw Jesus as fulfilling the
covenant witnessed to by both Moses, as representative of the original
covenanted community of Israel, and Elijah, the representative of the whole
prophetic witness throughout Israel's faith history. 

What is more, Luke tied this symbolic experience, so vividly recalled by
the apostolic community represented by Peter, James and John, to the
mission of the apostolic church in the real world where human sickness and
distress abounded.  The healing of the epileptic child proved that the
divine presence and redeeming grace which the church proclaimed is no pious
hope, but a spiritual reality breaking in upon the natural, chaotic state
of a diseased and distressed world.  This interpretation of the
Transfiguration, recalling as it does the transfiguration of Moses and the
prophetic witness to God as sovereign Lord of Israel's faith and history,
seems far more relevant to our times than Paul's tortured polemic. 

On the other hand, we must also recall that Paul and Luke had quite
different purposes in mind.  Paul wrote a personal communication to one of
the congregations he had founded and which suffered from a serious crisis.
The conflict raging in Corinth, perhaps between Jews and Gentiles as in
Galatia, had not only divided the community, but threatened to destroy the
very work Paul had so patiently carried out there.  Paul would be of all
people most surprised to find that his letter was now "holy scripture."
Luke wrote to convince a leader of the Gentile community, or a wider
audience of both Jews and Gentiles, that the Christian faith was no threat
to peace and welfare of the Graeco-Roman world in which they were living,
but indeed its only hope for survival.

If one prefers to regard this as a credible, historical event in the life
of Jesus, one must see it for what it meant to him as much as to the
apostles.  It confirmed Jesus in his mission and prepared him for the
difficult trials that lay ahead.  To quote D.M. Beck in *The Interpreter(s
Dictionary of the Bible* (iv.687): "Luke places more emphasis on Jesus,
who, facing death, found in prayer the support with him of great spiritual
leaders and especially God who chose him for the way of suffering, death
and resurrection."  That may well have been all that Luke sought to do.

copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006, 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.

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