As many of you know, the Feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ supersedes when its fixed date, Aug. 6, falls on a Sunday. Hence my singular focus this week on the Transfiguration — an event and theological point of departure, of such importance, it appears in the three synoptic accounts of the Gospel (in Matthew chapter 17, Mark chapter 9, and Luke chapter 9); an argument can be made that one can detect veiled reference to the Transfiguration in the Gospel According to John (especially in chapter 1); and the reference is explicit in the Second Letter of the Apostle Peter (in chapter 1).
The Transfiguration events in the New Testament biblical narrative occur in the midst of Jesus’ earthly ministry — affirming his ministry’s divine origin and significance, and pointing toward his culminating visits to Bethany and Jerusalem.
So we might expect this feast of dramatic realization to fall in the season before Lent, or alternatively somewhat later in the season after Pentecost. However, while the origins of its observance are ancient or at least medieval, and fit into the New Testament narrative, the Aug. 6 observance was not established until the middle of the 15th century, and bore on contemporary events.
Briefly, Renaissance Pope Callixtus III wished to commemorate for all time what was thought to be the final defeat of the Ottoman Empire and of Islam, and the final triumph of Christianity. Constantinople had fallen; and the Ottoman Empire was on the verge of a massive expansion into Eastern Europe; but the Ottoman Siege of Belgrade did not hold.
The Christian defense prevailed in July 1456, and news of this supposedly “final” Christian victory reached Rome and the aforementioned pope on Aug. 6, 1456. Hence the curious dating of this fixed major feast.
I submit that there is important theology in the choosing of this Aug. 6 date. In fact, far from being “final,” other sieges involving similar Christian and Islamic combatants followed, century after century, on into the 20th century and World War I (a mere 100 years ago). So, in some respects Aug. 6 reminds us of the lamentable history, and certain futility of all these wars among followers of the same God (or Allah) of Abraham called by some “Ibrahim.”
Additionally, the precipitous and sadly erroneous declaration of Callixtus III reminds us yet again that God and God’s ways are so much greater than humans and our reckoning, and that, in our analysis of history, we must humbly trust the Almighty to make definitively benign sense of things. That is to say, the pope’s understanding of the relevant context and ultimate outcome paled in comparison with that of his divine Creator.
The biblical account of the Transfiguration of Jesus of Nazareth represents one of a series of heavenly affirmations that this Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the Christ — the anointed one, God in human form made manifest. (Similar divine affirmation can be seen in events surrounding Jesus’ birth, and also at his baptism, at his crucifixion, and in his resurrection and ascension.)
In turn, while again, in some respects, this series should remind us of the profound truth of Jesus’ divinity, this painstakingly long series may also be intended to remind us of the difficulty of impressing upon you and me the truth of others’ utter goodness around us which we are ironically prone to overlook or ignore.
In the New Testament accounts of the Transfiguration, Peter, Prince of the Apostles, on the Mount of Transfiguration, recognized the greatness, the specialness, of Jesus. But Peter missed the point that Jesus was not simply the equal or fulfillment of the Law (represented by Moses) and the Prophets (represented by Elijah), that is to say, the full substance of the canon of the Hebrew Bible as it then stood. Indeed, even this Prince of the Apostles (Peter) needed to be instructed quite explicitly by God, in the human vernacular of that place and time. Peter needed to hear God say, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
In this homiletic context, my question for you and me is whether we allow ourselves to recognize the greatness if not divinity of persons right around us.
Are we, like Peter, inclined at first to limit our estimation of people around us, or before or behind us — or even arrayed against us — to categories of accomplishment with which we are familiar from other contexts? Or are we open to the possibility of the coexistence with us, in proximity — perhaps in our own families, perhaps among those with whom we “hang out,” or conversely, possibly among those whom we affirmatively dislike (!) — of Christ-like or God-like persons or behavior, unlike any others we have known, which is to say, persons and behavior that challenge, surpassing our understanding of rectitude?
Lastly, as we reflect on the experience of Jesus and his friends on the Mount of Transfiguration 2,000 years ago, and the possibility of transfiguration experiences among our acquaintances nowadays, let us also reflect on the other sort of transfiguration experienced by the prophet Moses after his time on Mount Sinai, in the presence of and in conversation with the Almighty God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel). Moses’ face literally shone; he was transfigured in appearance and in divine behavior now endorsed by God, based on the stone codex entrusted by God to him (the Ten Commandments).
Again, with a view to sharing the homiletic guidance afforded us here as well, in Exodus chapter 34, I would ask whether you and I recognize that, when we are in the presence of our Lord — in prayer, in meditation, or in interaction with persons in whom God’s Holy Spirit and godly behavior are unmistakably present — we too have the potential, like Moses, to come away from that encounter changed, ourselves transfigured, beaming, made new. Let us keep our eyes open for just such opportunities, and “shun evil companions.” Amen.
— The Rev. Dr. Wesley S. Williams, Jr., K.St.J., is Bishop’s Regional Sub-Dean for St. Thomas & St. John, Vicar of Nazareth by the Sea Episcopal Church in the Diocese of the Virgin Islands (U.S. & U.K.) and also Chairman, SRMC All Faiths Hospital Chaplaincy.