The prophet Elijah is one of the great figures of the Bible, and straddles both the Old and New Testaments. In our first reading today from the Book of Sirach, we have this great paeon of praise for Elijah: ‘How glorious you are Elijah in your wondrous deeds’. There is also a profound hope that he would come again, to prepare the way of the Lord. This hope grows through the Hebrew scriptures, and culminates in the very last verses of the Old Testament, in the Book of Malachi: ‘Lo I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.’ And to this day, when Jewish families celebrate Passover, they leave a place at the table for Elijah, and at one point a son goes to the front door to see if Elijah has come.
In our Gospel reading from Matthew, the disciples Peter, James and John are coming down the mountain having just experienced the glorious Transfiguration of Jesus. At the Transfiguration they saw Elijah, as well as Moses, who were talking with Jesus. As the disciples walked down the mountain they questioned Jesus about Elijah. They wanted to know why Elijah had not come earlier, as promised in scripture, preceding the coming of Jesus. Jesus told them that Elijah had already come, but that people did not recognize him. ‘Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.’ John came preaching repentance and prepared the way for the promised Messiah. In this way, he was fulfilling the role of Elijah, but the religious leaders simply did not recognize him. They did not recognize him. The scriptures are full of this theme of failing to recognize the one who is in their midst; of not truly seeing; of spiritual blindness. Of course, Jesus’ enemies did not recognize who he was. Remember all those chapters in John’s Gospel, where the Pharisees keep asking him hostile questions about his identity. ‘Where are you from? Who is your family? How do you know so much – you’ve never been taught. You are not yet fifty; how have you seen Abraham?’ Finally, in chapter 8: 25 in exasperation, ‘Who are you?’ as the prologue to John puts it, ‘He was in the world, yet the world did not know him,’
I had just loaded my suitcase into the car and was headed toward the back gate of the monastery. I was departing for a week of personal retreat and my mind was already settling into a cabin in the silent, sunlit forest at Emery House. One of my brothers suddenly thrust a small vase into my hands, with three flowers: a bright pink peony, a red rose, and a white lily. He beamed, winked, and then vanished: a guerilla ambush of kindness.
As I set the vase down on the desk in the cabin, and as I gazed at it in the days to come, it became something of a parable. The peony, by nature already large and attention-grabbing, unfolded and unfolded until she was only light and air, all her petals cast with abandon onto the floor by day two. The rose, generous but with a measured gravitas, let her petals drop more slowly. By day four, rose had departed. But the lily was a sharp, closed cone of white: fuller and rounder with every hour but cloistered within herself. I became quite certain that I would see the exact moment she blossomed. I took a long walk on the morning of day six, and of course I returned to the cabin to find her moment had arrived… under the watchful eye of God alone. Yet the fragrance filled the room, as if to thank me nonetheless for my faithful waiting and vigilant watching.
Ecclesiasticus 48:1-11 & Matthew 17:9-13
Advent is one of my favorite seasons because it invites us as liturgical Christians to contemplate a vision of time that is circular and cyclical, rather than a merely linear arc. On the one hand, the Christ we meet in Advent assures us that he is the Beginning and the End, the Word and Wisdom of God present at creation and the Omega point in whom all things converge. One day, the story that we are reading will reach its apparent conclusion, and the last page will declare in bold, black letters: “The End.” On the other hand, we are assured that as we turn that final page, we will know in an entirely new way that the Story has only just begun. Likewise, as we follow Jesus through our own experience of past, present, and future, our individual journey can seem quite finite. But in the context of the great Story of salvation stewarded by the Church, the continual re-telling enacted and embodied, contemplated and savored each Advent, each Christmastide, each Epiphany, helps us orient ourselves in relation to a circle and a cycle. At the center of the circle is Christ; its circumference is a lifetime comprised of moments when we have turned – or are turning – or will turn — toward that center. In each turning moment, we know in our bones: we’ve been here before; we’ll be here again. Yet each encounter holds the promise of new grace. We light, we extinguish, we re-light the candles, and points of flickering light slowly connect the dots. Like the gradual, steady, inward motion of a spiral, we are drawn ever closer to that mysterious moment when, as the First Letter of John puts it, “We will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”
Last week I had been thinking ahead about today’s sermon. One night I dreamed that I was working on this sermon. In that dream I was told that I would find the message that I should preach at the end of the Gospel reading, and that it would be about light, or enlightenment. The next day I read through the Gospel for today and found that the last verse of today’s Gospel could be seen as an example of the enlightening of the 3 Disciples with Jesus, Peter, James, and John.
Psalm 80:1-3; 14-18; Matthew 17:9-13
In the psalm appointed for today the psalmist prays, “Show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” Psalm 80 begins and ends with that phrase: “Show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” The countenance is reflected in the face of a person. It’s more than just physiology; the countenance is the window of the soul, how the essence of a person is expressed, and how the essence of a person is accessed: through their countenance. The countenance is the channel, in and out. This same phrase about the countenance shows up repeatedly in the psalms and elsewhere in the scriptures. (1) And we also see a reflection of this in this Gospel lesson we’ve just heard. Jesus is with his disciples on the mountaintop where he is visited by God’s Spirit and Jesus is becomes a changed man. How do his disciples know? The look on Jesus’ face: his countenance is absolutely transfigured with light.