by Rosie Snow
Today’s scripture is Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration. I’ve always thought that it is a strange passage. It sticks out from the other stories of Jesus’s teachings, works, and personage, almost like it’s trying too hard to show that Jesus is definitely, 100%, without-a-doubt divine. In the previous chapter, the Pharisees and Sadducees ask Jesus for a sign from heaven and Jesus scolds them for not being able to see
what is plainly before them. And yet this passage seems eager to fulfill that request for an unmistakable sign. It’s got everything: a mountain, a bright cloud, God speaks directly, Moses and Elijah appear. It is a clear echo of the moment when Moses receives the tablets from God on Mount Sinai, and it is a clear demonstration that Jesus is the fulfillment of the cornerstones of the Old Testament, both the Law, represented by Moses, and the Prophets, represented by Elijah. And Jesus’ physical transformation is a bit of a Clark Kent in the telephone booth moment—a way to very obviously confirm that yes, this guy is more than only human. Of course, Jesus does plenty of supernatural stuff—healing people, walking on water, clairvoyance—but those stories all say something about Jesus’ values and the world he is trying to bring. The transfiguration feels awkwardly stuck in there to provide proof that even the Pharisees would believe.
Of course, it’s possible that this scripture is more than just narrative emphasis. It’s possible that there’s something I’m not seeing. Sometimes it helps to take a step back, and look at things from a different angle.
Let’s try 2 Peter, another of today’s reading. Maybe it brings a fresh look at the Transfiguration. I’ll read it again:
"For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”[b] 18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.
19 We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts."
Some context on this letter is helpful. Peter is likely writing to churches in Asia Minor in the days before his death. This is his last chance to impart his vision of Christian faith, and he does so passionately. Peter spends most of his letter furious that people in various communities are having sex and being corrupt. But he also has an interesting way of framing the second coming of Jesus Christ. He describes it as an event that involves the whole cosmos—the heavens and the earth. He mentions previous times when great destruction was followed by renewal, such as the great flood. Then says that at Jesus’s second coming the heavens will melt and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. He’s not speaking of a total annihilation, but of a dramatic, revealing change that will leave a renewed heavens and earth transformed for the better.
And when Peter refers to the transfiguration as proof of Jesus’s divinity, he uses cosmic imagery to describe the faith that such divinity should inspire: “You will do well to pay attention to [the prophetic message] as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts.”
“Until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts.” How beautiful is that?
The morning star is a star—or actually, a planet—that rises in the sky a few hours before dawn. For a long stretch of the year it is Venus. Right now, we have three morning stars: Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter.
At the darkest, coldest hour of the twenty-four-hour cycle, when the night has lasted so long and it seems as though the sun will never return, up comes not the dawn. Not yet. But here comes the morning star that tells us the dawn is coming. That’s when the joy begins. Because although it is still dark, when the morning star rises, we know that the transformation from dark to light is promised, and it is imminent.
The morning star that Peter refers to—the star that rises in our hearts—is Jesus. This imagery is echoed in Revelation in some of the very last verses of the whole Bible, when Jesus says: “I am the root and descendent of David, the bright morning star.”
Being Christian, then, is like waiting and waiting at that darkest time of night, when there is little hope left, but being able to see that bright morning star, knowing that the dawn is coming soon.
This image of Jesus as the morning star helps me understand the power of the Transfiguration better. Until Jesus appears in history, people have been grappling in the dark. This is not to say that the Jewish faith or other ancient wisdom traditions are worthless—they also have been guiding lights through a dark time in human history: a time of great violence, growing Empire, and repression of the feminine. These wisdom traditions have been the stars at night and the moon. One could say that the law and the prophets of the Jewish tradition have been the moon and stars at night, bringing people close to God even as violence and injustice fills the human world.
So when Jesus meets Moses—representing the law—and Elijah—representing the prophets—on the mountain, his face shining like the sun—which is, actually a star—amid a storm of cosmic imagery, and God says for the second time in the Gospel “this is my beloved Son, listen to him!” When all this happens, it is a way of saying “now rises the morning star to joins the stars and the moon which have been guiding you. Watch him, have faith. The Dawn is coming near, and soon. Do not be afraid.”
Of course, we would all like “soon” to mean “five minutes from now,” not 2,000 plus years from now. The early Christians were also impatient, and Peter had words for them, saying: “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
Peter is right! This story of redemption is set on an ancient planet, amid a slow-moving cosmos. In geologic time 2,000 years is not much. In terms of the history of the universe it’s pretty much nothing. Even astrologers think that one full cycle through the zodiac is 24 to 25 thousand years.
You may wonder why I mention astrology. But I think we should talk about astrology. There is a reason why astrology is growing in popularity in North American while Christianity is waning. Astrology is really good at framing events as being part of a process—a large process that makes sense and ultimately is moving in a positive direction. Especially in times of great change, people crave that sense of assurance, and they want to feel connected to and at home within the larger cosmos, which, you know, does exist. Christianity tells this story, too, but I think we as Christians have lost touch with the role of the heavens and earth in our faith. We treat them like they are just a temporary backdrop for now and God will control-alt-delete everything and write a completely new program to upload us into.
No! The story of Christ is steeped in THIS cosmos. Romans says that the creation struggles to be freed from its bondage to decay, alongside us. Peter describes a dramatic peeling back and change, not annihilation. When Christ is portrayed as the morning star, that means something. A new heaven and new earth doesn’t mean this all disappears and is replaced. It means profound change—and the earth and heavens are known to change in profound ways. The heavens are constantly on the move, and the earth has already transformed many times over. It is changing quite quickly right now before our eyes, due to human behavior, but what if these changes are intercepted and catalyzed to bring us into right relationship with the earth? Never in the history of the planet have there been billions of human beings actively working to bring about renewal and abundance. Wouldn’t that be a new earth? I am not standing up here trying to predict how this process will unfold, though I do believe Christ’s return will be the catalyst.
But I am urging us to remember the cosmos. To re-establish our bearings within the heavens and on the earth, because that is going to renew our connection to this story we are all living within. And hopefully it renews our relationship to that bright morning star, Jesus Christ, who gives us that joy and assurance of the dawning of a new age, of a new heaven and new earth, awash in light and ruled by Love.