Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36
There’s a funny Hebrew word, “quaran,” that’s used in the story about Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai. It usually means “horns” and it’s where we get words like “cornucopia” or “unicorn” where “corn” means “horn.” So the Hebrew Scriptures quite literally say that Moses’s face was horned. That’s how St. Jerome understood it when he was translating the Bible into Latin. He even consulted with contemporary Jewish scholars to make sure.
In fact, the Bible — along with other near-eastern traditions — often uses the symbolism of horns to speak of power, rule, and authority; so it’s a pretty fitting image for a man who has just spoken with God face-to-face and brought back his commandments. I suppose one might want to compare this story with Paul’s instructions about who should or shouldn’t cover their heads while praying. It might be interesting.
But anyway, the same Hebrew word that usually means “horns” can also be used to refer to “rays of light” (think of how a flashlight beam is roughly the same shape as a horn) and that’s how it was translated into Greek a couple hundred years before Jesus. And since we’re pretty certain that the New Testament writers were using the Greek Luke noticed this parallel between Jesus and Moses.
But in this story: Peter and John have been following around this guy, this ordinary looking man. Then, all of a sudden, while he’s praying, they see him transfigured. That is, they see his appearance change. One minute he looks ordinary, the next minute he’s all dazzlingly bright. There’s light emanating from his face. His clothes have turned stark white. The description reminds us of Ezekiel’s vision of God riding on the Cherubim or of Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Days seated on his throne. He’s awe-inspiring!
And Moses and Elijah show up; the two guys who sort of represent and sum up the Law and the Prophets — all of God’s previous revelation. And they’re just casually chatting it up with Shiny Jesus.
The Apostles know they’ve seen something special. Peter wants the vision to last. He wants them to camp out right there, ’cause apparently this Jesus is a third hero — just as great as Moses and Elijah.
And then the cloud covers them. There’s a voice from heaven pointing Peter and John to Jesus, and only to Jesus. And then things are back to normal. The vision’s over. Jesus is back to ordinary.
What I want to ask is this: Which one was the real, true Jesus? The ordinary one or the shiny one? Because I think that they’re both him. I think that, if we don’t realize that Jesus is God, we’re missing out. But also, if we don’t keep in mind that he’s really, truly human, we miss the whole thing just as much.
Jesus’s humanity is not just some veil over God’s face that hides his true nature. No. When God became man, we wasn’t hiding himself. He was revealing himself. He was showing something about himself that hadn’t been revealed to Moses and the Prophets. He’s showing how truly limitless he is.
He’s not just a God of splendor and majesty and might; he’s also a God of poverty and humility and weakness. He’s not just the holy one dwelling in unapproachable light; he’s also the God who is near to us, who bears our grief and carries our sorrow. He’s all of these. He is all in all. All of our opposites come together in him. He’s heavenly and earthly.
This is important to remember when we talk about heaven or heavenly things. Too often, when we say heaven, we mean somewhere that isn’t here. As if heaven and earth couldn’t be together. The truth is, when we say heaven, we should mean this other aspect of things. This reality that isn’t normally apparent to our five senses but which is, nonetheless, here.
When we pray, we address our Father in heaven. But we believe that he can hear us because he is here among us. When people die, we talk about them being in heaven with God. And that is true. But we also believe that they are here — we are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses. And here we are — physical, earthly beings with physical, earthly needs and limitations. But St. Paul describes us as being seated with Jesus in the heavenlies. Heaven and earth go together.
This is important to remember when we talk about the Gospel. The Good News isn’t just about how to have a private spiritual experience. The message of the Gospel can be summed up in three words, “Jesus is Lord.” And if he’s Lord, he’s the Lord of our spirits and our bodies. He’s Lord of our actions, relationships, and finances.
If we forgive someone who sins against us, we’ve experienced the Gospel. If we feed anyone who’s hungry or help to take care of a child in the foster care system, that’s the Gospel. They’re experiencing the Gospel through our actions whether or not we add a four-step plan to “getting right with God.” The old argument between spiritual experience and the so-called “social gospel” is gone. Jesus is Lord over both.
This is important to remember when we’re looking at our own religious practices as well. Spiritual things and physical things always go together. They belong together. Jesus put them together. When we worship God “in spirit and in truth,” we do so with physical things: water, incense, colors, oil, fire, wine, bread.
When we all share bread and wine, we believe that we are being fed with the very life of God, that he is truly, spiritually present. But we are also receiving bread and wine.
One of the ancient Offertory prayers refers to the bread as the fruit of the ground and the work of human hands. It refers to the wine as the fruit of the vine and the work of human hands. And it’s this combination of God’s work and humanity’s work that constitutes what Christianity is all about: aligning ourselves on earth with the ways of heaven. It’s exactly what we see in the Incarnation.
It’s important for us to remember that Jesus is God so that, if we want to know what the Father is like, we have only to look at Jesus. It’s important also for us to remember that, when God fully revealed himself to us, it was as a human. To remember that, when the Blessed Virgin Mary paused three times a day to pray her Shema (as a good, pious Jewish woman), she no doubt had the Lord of the Universe tugging on her skirts asking for a snack. It’s important to remember that, when our own children or parents or spouse have needs, we serve God by patiently serving them.
Sharing a meal or a drink or a board game with our friends and family is a holy thing. To live a good life — just to be human — is holy.
As St. Athanasius taught us, “the glory of God is mankind, fully alive. And the life of mankind is the vision of God.”
Jesus, our God, is the Ancient of Days with a countenance brighter than the sun. Yes. But he’s also a carpenter with calloused hands and dirt under his fingernails.