Finding Our Way Again
On the Exodus, the Transfiguration, and Lent
I got emotional watching Moana.
There. I’ve said it out loud.
Yes, the Disney movie that I watched with my three year old. Moana isn’t even a Disney-Pixar movie with its predictable formula designed to make you cry, just the run-of-the-mill animated musical we’ve come to expect from Disney Animation Studios over the past eighty years.
There is a lot of love — and, if we’re honest, hate — about Disney movies. The music is catchy and regularly receives nominations from the Grammys and Oscars. The characters are lovable and funny, often with a humor meant more for adults than for children. Disney’s visual effects are also beautiful and stunning, matching a true-to-life detail with hues and angles more akin to a dream or daydream.
Moana certainly had each of these elements, but what really got me was the storytelling.
Moana is a teenage girl on a remote island in Oceania, part of a tribe that never leaves their home. The outside world is too unknown, too dangerous, too … different. There’s something deep inside Moana, however, that draws her beyond the reef. She knows it’s unknown. She knows it’s dangerous. She knows it’s different. And yet exploring seems to be in her DNA.
As Moana finds out, it literally is in her DNA. A thousand years earlier, her people were voyages who only parked their boats when their journeys got too unknown, too dangerous, too different. As the years and decades and centuries passed, Moana’s entire tribe forgot something at the very core of who they are.
Thus begins Moana’s journey: not to discover her way across the ocean, but to discover who she and her people were meant to be: wayfinders.
Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, a pivot in the Church calendar that marks the end of the season of Epiphanytide and the beginning of the season of Lent. Epiphanytide — literally the season of “appearance” or “revealing” — celebrates the revealing of God to the world through Jesus. Yes, this involves God revealing who Jesus is meant to be to Jesus’ earliest followers and to New Testament readers throughout the centuries. We often overlook, however, that Jesus was also fully human and thus gradually came to his own self-discovery of who he was meant to be. This occurred through momentous and definitional events over the course of his life, including one such event that has come to be known as “the Transfiguration.”
About eight days later Jesus took Peter, John, and James up on a mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was transformed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly, two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared and began talking with Jesus. They were glorious to see. And they were speaking about his exodus from this world, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem. Peter and the others had fallen asleep. When they woke up, they saw Jesus’ glory and the two men standing with him. As Moses and Elijah were starting to leave, Peter, not even knowing what he was saying, blurted out, “Master, it’s wonderful for us to be here! Let’s make three shelters as memorials —one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But even as he was saying this, a cloud overshadowed them, and terror gripped them as the cloud covered them. Then a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him.” When the voice finished, Jesus was there alone. They didn’t tell anyone at that time what they had seen.
Luke 9.28 — 36 (NLT)
This story might sound very familiar. On the one hand, it’s a story that appears in each of the Synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — and that we even covered at the end of Epiphany last year. Similarly the Transfiguration story seems to echo the story of Jesus’ baptism in which a voice from heaven claims Jesus as his son.
It may also sound familiar, however — both for us and Luke’s original readers 2000 years ago — because of its allusions to much older stories. Here Luke tips his hand that there’s something else going on here than what initially meets the eye, employing two words brought together in a subtle but deliberate way: “Moses” and “exodus.”
The story of the exodus was and is one of those momentous and definitional stories for the Jewish people — it reminds them who they are meant to be. Now Luke moves to suggest that it’s also a story that informs us about who Jesus is meant to be.
- Like a child being brought to the temple for circumcision on the eighth day (Gen 17.1–14), Jesus is a son consecrated for a special relationship YHWH.
- Like Moses standing before the Israelites (Ex 34.29–35), Jesus is a “glowing” representative of YHWH to the world and vice versa.
- Like the perfect lamb was chosen to give its life for life and freedom of the Israelites (Ex 12.1–13), Jesus is the “chosen Son” who will give up his own life and freedom in exchange for the life and freedom of the world.
You might even say that the Lukan Jesus is meant to be a wayfinder, rediscovering the ancient role of his people in order to embrace who he and who they were meant to be.
The story of the Transfiguration is often taught as a paramount event through which Jesus’ divinity is proven to his followers and to 2000 years of Gospel readers.
But I wonder if this was not Luke’s intent in telling this story in this way.
Over the course of the Bible, in many other individual New Testament stories, and in the long history of Christian theologians, it’s clear that Jesus as “God’s Son” speaks to his divinity alongside the Father. The Father’s claim that Jesus is his Son at the Transfiguration, however, seems intent on accomplishing something else.
Through this Transfiguration experience, the wayfinder Jesus and his disciples are discovering who they are meant to be.
From here on it becomes clear what Jesus’ ultimate fate is going to be. He now knows the way, “his exodus from this world, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem.” And he chooses to embrace it. Jesus isn’t meant to sit forever in a tabernacle like Peter thought — the static place of God’s presence with his people. Instead, Jesus was meant to go out — to be a son consecrated to God, a glowing representative of God to his people, and a first-born sacrifice who would somehow, some way bring us peace through his death.
But this story is not simply about Jesus. It is also about his disciples, Peter/John/James and all who have claimed to be his followers. They have now seen who Jesus is meant to be and the treacherous way of self-denial he is taking to the cross. In the process, they are actually getting a look into their own DNA at who they are meant to be.
Hatred has infiltrated them, but hatred is not part of their original DNA. Love is.
Fear has infiltrated them, but fear is not part of their original DNA. Courage is.
Violence has infiltrated them, but violence is not part of their original DNA. Mercy is.
Selfishness has infiltrated them, but selfishness is not a part of their original DNA. Sacrifice is.
Followers of Jesus are not meant to be passive and wholly unqualified bystanders who await the kingdom of love/courage/mercy/peace from another place and another time. They too are meant to be wayfinders who navigate the world as if Jesus’ kingdom priorities matter here and now.
Immediately preceding the story of the Transfiguration we see Jesus explicitly explaining what this way forward will require of his followers:
“The Son of Man must suffer many terrible things,” he said. “He will be rejected by the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He will be killed, but on the third day he will be raised from the dead.” Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed? If anyone is ashamed of me and my message, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in his glory and in the glory of the Father and the holy angels. I tell you the truth, some standing here right now will not die before they see the Kingdom of God.”
The story of Moana only truly matters if she and her people embrace who they are meant to be, leaving the reef and returning to the open ocean as voyagers.
The grand story of the exodus only truly matters if the Israelites embrace who they are meant to be be, following Moses through the muddy river bottom to freedom on the other side.
And the way of the Jesus only truly matters if we embrace who we are meant to be, following Jesus on the difficult way of speaking and living and perhaps even giving our lives for the kingdom of God in a world of empires.
This is the only way to freedom.
Going forward in the Gospel According Luke and moving into the season of Lent, the way of Jesus is going to get increasingly difficult, not easier. Truly embracing who we are meant to be leads to the life-altering question: “In light of who Jesus is, who are we meant to be? What is required of us in the place and time in which we find ourselves?” And that difficult question has led to and will lead to difficult conclusions — conclusions that will put us at odds with our own conscience, with our culture, with principalities and powers, even with other Christians.
But these should not distract us, discourage us, nor drag us down to their level. As people in ongoing pursuit of Jesus together, may we use this season of Lent to continue encouraging one another along the way. And may we continue to remind one another who we are meant to be.
We know the way. It is the way of Jesus, of love, of courage, of mercy, of self-sacrifice for the other in our midst.
And we know who we are. In a place and time that would tell us to be afraid of that which appears too unknown, dangerous, or different, we are wayfinders.