In the alternative Gospel reading for today, we see Jesus taking to the wilderness with a few of his disciples, as he prepares to be mangled, mutilated, and broken on the cross. There, in the desolation of the mountains, heavenly light shines on him, as he is transfigured and is joined by Moses, the great liberator, and Elijah, the great prophet. His disciples, in an effort to contain and memorialize the movement of the Living God, even offered to construct a tabernacle for this heavenly assembly. Of course, the proposed tabernacles couldn’t contain the light of the Living God. tabernacles never work well for that sort of thing.
One might assume divine illumination and the sudden appearance of age-old sacred heroes would be welcomed signs within the larger social context of Jesus and his disciples, especially in a society so deeply embedded in religious culture. In fact, the religious establishment had been asking Jesus for miraculous signs (Matthew 16:1). Jesus though, knowing how societies and religious establishments are quick to seek signs but much more reticent to commune with liberation and prophecy, took just a small crew of close disciples, who together reacted with fear and terror to what was purposed for awe and amazement.
Divine light is certainly problematic within oppressive societies, even in religious cultures who have experienced great awakenings. Within America’s historic oppression of black and brown bodies, there was certainly fear and terror associated with the prospect of heavenly light shining on the enslaved body of Christ.
The Gospel’s liberating and prophetic message inspired anti-enslavement rebellions. The enslaved developed what Fredrick Douglas called a “pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ” as opposed to the “corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.” The fervent prayers, the passionate worship, and the growing defiance of the enslaved to accept their status represented an existential threat to the continued wealth, privilege, and tabernacles of the awakened nation. As the Negro Spiritual, Oh Freedom, put it, “And before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free.”
With such threats to the glorious promise of a prosperous nation, the body of Christ was forced to take refuge out in the high places and wildernesses of their context if they were to continue to meet with their Savior and his contemporary liberators and prophets, such as Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglas. In the wilderness, they could celebrate the heavenly lights shining upon their tattered threads and their work-weary faces.
It seemed the awakened nation had never considered that God could indeed both love and like this wounded black and brown body — or perhaps they did. This may explain the harsh penalties meted out on the backs and limbs of the enslaved caught in attempts to read the scriptures or pray — caught trying to commune with God.
As fearful and terrorizing as it may be, the transfiguration causes me to long for a glimpse of the illuminated face of Christ and especially the body we have esteemed as most unlovable and unlikable. I pray that in meeting with such a vision, I will not be derailed, busying myself with building tabernacles, places where I can limit and control God’s uncontrollable light. Instead, I pray that I will relax into the glorious communion of liberation, prophesy, and a Creator willing to sacrifice himself for others. I pray I can listen, out in the wilderness, for the reassuring voice of God, proclaiming his endless love and fondness for all of us.