Today in the Spirit: Last Sunday of Epiphany A

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On the Last Sunday of Epiphany every year we contemplate the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ. In this season of celebrating the marketing prowess of the Father God revealing the glory of the Son in the world, the various accounts of the Transfiguration in the Gospels form a bookend for the worshiper with the accounts of the Baptism of Jesus assigned for the First Sunday of Epiphany. The church will have us recall the voice of the Father commending the Son to begin and end the season. In addition, the light and glory on the mount of the Transfiguration will set up a point of contrast devotionally with the desolation of the mount of Temptation on the First Sunday in Lent. In Year A, alongside the Transfiguration account in Matthew 17:1-9, the church assigns Exodus 24:12-18 describing the ascent of Moses on Mount Sinai. Psalm 99 assigned in Year A (and Year C) lauds YHWH for his desire to meet his people in their time of need. The NT selection from Philippians 3:7-14 describes the apostle Paul’s desire to know God who is pleased to make himself known through Jesus Christ.

The Collect

O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Six Days (Exodus 24:12-18)

Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights. (15-18)

With the selection of this OT reading, the church invites the worshiper to see the parallels between the experiences of Jesus on the mount of the Transfiguration and of Moses on Mount Sinai. One key difference is that while Moses enters into the cloud and fire in Exodus, Jesus himself is the light on the mountain in the Gospel. (Could we conclude that the Son of God was the devouring fire on Sinai?). Notice Moses and Joshua wait six days just outside the cloud covering before Moses hears the call of YHWH to enter. Somehow Moses knows to hold off before entering the cloud when it descends. Then, when called, he enters without hesitation. The 19th century Russian Orthodox monk Theophan the Recluse describes this as a kind of standing at attention before God: “One act is required – and that is all; for this one act pulls everything together and keeps everything in order…This one act is [to] stand with attention in your heart.” Today, in the Spirit, Moses being my model, grant me the wisdom to wait on you and hear your voice. In any activity let me neither jump too soon nor hesitate around the edges when it is time to move.     

Holy Is He! (Psalm 99)

The LORD reigns; let the peoples tremble!
    He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
The LORD is great in Zion;
    he is exalted over all the peoples.
Let them praise your great and awesome name!
    Holy is he!
The King in his might loves justice.
    You have established equity;
you have executed justice
    and righteousness in Jacob.
Exalt the LORD our God;
    worship at his footstool!
    Holy is he! (1-5)

With its references to the pillar of the cloud and a holy mountain (Mount Zion in the psalm), the church has selected this song of praise to accompany the Gospel reading of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Reciting it before the Gospel reading aids us as worshipers to place the appearance of Jesus Christ in general, and the Transfiguration event particularly, in a historical line of magnificent manifestations of God’s holy presence throughout Israel’s history. See, however, how the psalm also refers to God’s justice and righteousness, how he appears on the mountain as a forgiving God and an avenger of their wrongdoings. This reminds us that the unveiling of Jesus of Nazareth white as light is not merely a show of power but a force to right that which is wrong on earth. Not with flash on the Mount of the Transfiguration but in silence on the hill of Calvary will transformation truly begin. Today, Holy Spirit, let this song of praise increase my understanding of the meaning of the Son of God coming among us in the world.     

Knowing Christ My Lord (Philippians 3:7-14)

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (7-11)

Paul was not a witness to the Transfiguration of Christ described in the Gospels, but with his own experience of seeing the resurrected Jesus in a light from heaven (Acts 9:3) he might as well have been. In his own writings and in his speeches in Acts, we find the impact of his conversion experience showing on him with a compulsion not just to complete a task like a soldier under orders but to be present with and know the Lord who commands him. By the time he writes Philippians Paul is older and seemingly at the end of his own apostolic activities. In the letter he has a few words to say about the state of the church, but mainly his writing is devotional, focused on abiding in Christ. It is so easy to get caught up in our activities, even our Christian activities–how successful we are, and the impact we are making. Paul’s testimony on his own state of mind, in prison, at the end of his days, begs us to ask: Yes, but do you know Jesus Christ? Do you know him through his life of suffering and restoration being played out in you? Today, in the Spirit, ask for the grace to examine yourself internally to see the life of Christ at work there.   

Jesus Only (Matthew 17:1-9)

[Peter] was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. (5-8)

Matthew’s version of the Transfiguration supplies detail that the other Gospels do not have on the aftermath of the miraculous events, particularly Jesus’ pastoral response to the disciples after they have been terror-stricken by the voice from the cloud. Why should Matthew tell us that Jesus touched them and spoke comforting words to them and that he was alone? One answer may be that, especially for the Jewish Christian readers he is addressing, Matthew wants to demonstrate a conscious narrowing of devotion to the One God that now must take place toward the person of Jesus Christ. Matthew’s account is really more a three-stage miraculous event: The first two stages–the light and the voice–would have been familiar to Matthew’s Jewish readers from the Hebrew Scriptures. The third event is the whisking away of all the fantastic sights and sounds until there is no one left but Jesus only–just his touch and his voice. In the NT reading from Philippians, the apostle Paul demonstrates his understanding of this narrowing of devotion when he states his personal goals as a Christian believer, that I may gain Christ and be found in him and that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:10-11). Today, Holy Spirit of Jesus, as I myself seek to know God through Jesus, let me, like the disciples on the mount of the Transfiguration, feel his touch, hear his familiar voice, that he alone will be more than enough. 

Today in the Spirit

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Published on

February 13, 2023

Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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