Friday, February 08, 2013

Feast of the Transfiguration

A little bit later in the morning, we are going to be joining with some of the congregation from Holy Trinity East Victoria Park in a celebration that really should take place on Tuesday – the pancake party that we refer to as Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras.  The basic idea of this is quite simple, and the name Mardi Gras – which actually is just French for Fat Tuesday – sums it up rather nicely.  The last chance to kick up your heels and eat and drink too much and behave regrettably before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.  In Germany, as in Brazil, Mardi Gras is called Karnavale – the feast of flesh – and modern Mardi Gras celebrations take that to a wonderful, though funnily enough not very original extreme.  But we get most of our cultural baggage about Mardi Gras from the 300 year old tradition that developed in the slave-owning French colony of New Orleans – there, Mardi Gras was not just an opportunity for riotous behaviour but also for political and social insubordination, a day for poking fun at what was all too serious the rest of the year, and it was there that one of the best-known practises of Mardi Gras originated – the wearing of masks.  Black slaves wearing masks poked fun at their owners' physical flaws or eccentricities on the original 18th century Mardi Gras floats, which were known as krewes.  The masks served a dual purpose – the hiding of identity and depersonalisation which enabled release from social inhibition.  During Mardi Gras, the masked slaves were briefly free to tell the truth about themselves and the society in which they lived.  Paradoxically, if nobody can see your face, you are free to be yourself.

Like the dancers on the Mardi Gras floats, Moses comes down from Mt Sinai in our reading from the Book of Exodus this morning, radiant with the reflected glory of God.  He has been given the words of the Ten Commandments and inscribed them on the stone tablets, and for forty days and nights Moses has been on the top of the active volcano that is Mt Sinai, hidden in the plumes of cloud and ash, and the people down below have heard the rumblings of the volcanic activity.  So when he comes down he is changed, and his face reflects the kavod, or the glory of God.  So bright is he that the people can't – or are afraid to – look at him.

Actually, there are some translation difficulties here.  According to the Hebrew, what is different about Moses' appearance is his qaran – a word that everywhere else in the Hebrew Bible is in the form of a noun and means 'horns'.  Horns, of course, in the Biblical tradition, are a shorthand way of denoting irresistible power, whether military or divine.  Only in later Jewish writings, in the Pesitta and Targum, and in the Greek Septuagunt, is this word qaran interpreted as something like rays of light – and this interpretation probably came about because of the context of Moses being up in the fire and smoke of the volcano in the brightness of God's kavod.  In the classical Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate of St Jerome, the term is translated literally, which is why Michelangelo, in his famous statue of Moses, shows him with horns.  The other word that is a bit iffy, in our translation of the Bible, is masweh – which we read as 'veil'.  It's obvious enough from the context that Moses covers his face, and priests in the ancient world often wore masks the represented the power of God, so possibly Moses is wearing something like a mask with horns.  It's all interesting, but hardly the main point – and the main difference is that generally the priest would put on the mask in order to channel the deity and appear like the god – Moses on the other hand covers his face because he is so alive with the glory of God that the people can't endure it.  But like priests and scantily clad Mardis Gras dancers, Moses wears the depersonalising mask in order to reveal the truth –in order that the radiance of God can be transmuted into a form that the people can endure.  It is, of course, something similar to the radiance of Jesus that confuses and overwhelms at the same time as it reveals the truth about his identity.

So this reading is about glory, about how it is experienced and how it transfigures our life as God's people.  It is a mystifying story that we can easily recognise as a kind of prequel of the story of the Transfiguration itself.  And I want to make just three quick points about what it might be saying to us ….

The first point is this.  That God's glory is strange.  Disconcerting, and strange.  For one thing, Moses himself doesn't recognise how he has been transformed.  The glory that transforms him like an overdose of radiation is a consequence of getting up close and personal with God, but its effects are only made known as he carries out his role as the one appointed to bear God's word to the people.  But as God's people – we find ourselves mystified and even a bit ambivalent about this glory.

Partly that is because as Christians we are nurtured on a different theology, the theology of the cross that emphasises, not divine transcendence and power, but the humility and vulnerability, even the weakness, of God.  We follow better the theology of St Paul, and even Luther and Calvin who in different ways emphasised the way of the cross through the virtues of self-denial and humility.  The theology of glory is perhaps better understood by Christian traditions like the Pentecostalists or even the Salvation Army than by we restrained Anglicans.

So, does God shine?  What do we really make of this strange story, echoed in the story of Jesus' transfiguration on another mountain.  The light that is somehow reflected in Moses' face might also remind us of the divine glory that blazed around shepherds on a hillside near Bethlehem, terrifying and drawing them closer to its source.  These stories all tell us that God's glory shines – and disconcerts, silencing our religious chatter and our self-satisfied certainty, leaving us blinking and disorientated.  As the literary theorists might put it, God's glory deconstructs us – God's glory dismantles the self-serving narratives of our own lives, leaving us raw and confused and ready to begin.  Moses is bringing the people – for the second time – the 'ten words' that will build them into God's people.  But first they – and we – need to be stripped of our pretensions to knowledge, and autonomy, and holiness.  God's glory leaves us blinking like rabbits caught in the spotlight.

You might be thinking – if you are being brutally honest with yourself – that as God's people we don't really shine all that much.  We come together on a Sunday morning, let's face it, as a group of not particularly ambitious sinners.  We hear God's word, and we reflect on it, we think about ourselves in the light of God's word – and we go out again to live our lives as best we can.  But as God's people we are meant for shining, and perhaps you do shine, unaware of your own condition as one who bears the weight of glory reflected by the God who makes his face to shine on you.  Perhaps, indeed, you do shine.

The second point is this.  That this story establishes Israel's relationship with God.  Moses is not just returning from a picnic on the mountain top, but from a soul-journey, a voyage of forty days and nights during which he has received, for the second time, the words of life for God's people.  The Ten Commandments establish the covenant between God and the people who agree to be bound by them, and in giving them through Moses, God establishes Moses as the one who is authorised to interpret the covenant.  What happens to Moses' face symbolises what this covenant is all about.

Remember that the original set of stone tablets has been destroyed, dashed to the ground in a fit of fury when Moses returns from the mountain and sees the people cavorting in front of a golden calf? Everything changes then, it becomes an open question whether God is still with them at all – because the people have unilaterally broken the covenant relationship.  Eventually after Moses' intercession, God rather grumpily agrees to stick around but Moses – with amazing nerve! – demands proof of God's good intentions.  He wants to see God's face.

The tradition of the Old Testament is that anyone who sees God's face will die.  God has already warned Moses about this - remember he hides Moses in the cleft of a rock as he goes past, allowing Moses to catch just a glimpse of his passing. [1] But now Moses insists that he will settle for nothing less than a face-to-face conversation.  Perhaps the blinding aura of light serves not only to indicate the proximity of God's glory but also to conceal and protect Moses from the brilliance of God's own life – but the encounter with God's face – God's kavod - transfigures the face of Moses.  It's actually not a very subtle point.  We are transformed to the extent to which we insist on getting up close.  Proximity to God is dangerous, it illuminates and perhaps burns away everything that is unholy, and we don't like that so much, when it comes down to it.  If we see God's face we die – our self-serving and self-constructed lives burn to ash and what is revealed is something that is of God.  We are generally a bit iffy about that, not sure whether we want to take that risk – but it is in fact the core of our spirituality.  Our closeness to God molds and reveals who we most truly are – and enables us to live in a way that is congruent with that.

The last point is this.  That Moses spirit-journey into the hidden face of God is both personal, and collective.  Whizz-bang as it sounds, Moses' transfiguration is not unique, but exemplary, which means it is a recipe or a template for our own spirit-voyage and our own transfiguration.  Moses' closeness to God is not a substitute for, but a road-map to, the journey of faith that each of us is invited to take.  But it is also a corporate experience, an experience through which Moses is representative of the whole people and which affirms the covenant between God and Israel and the calling Israel has to live in God's presence.  The leader is not the one who is sent to do that which the rest of us cannot, but the one who enacts in his own life and reveals in his own spirituality the essential characteristic that defines who we ourselves are, together – and who we might become.

[1] Ex 33.22