Caelestis formam gloriae…
This coming Sunday we in the Lutheran church will celebrate the feast of Transfiguration. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox celebrate Transfiguration in August, so Lutherans are rather unique in celebrating Transfiguration the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Celebrating it when we do allows Transfiguration to be a sort of book end for the season of Epiphany. Towards the beginning of Epiphany, we hear of Jesus' Baptism and we hear the Father say "This is my Son, whom I love". We hear the same words as Jesus' body is changed to shine forth glory on the mountain of Tabor.
The hymn of the day is an anonymous 15th century Latin text on the Transfiguration. We sing it to the powerful 15th century tune, Deo Gracias, a personal favorite of mine.
Let's start by getting into the biblical text for this feast day, from Matthew 17:
1 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. 3And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4And Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah." 5He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." 6When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Rise, and have no fear." 8And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
Stanza 1 of the hymn:
Of glory that the Church may share,
Which Christ upon the mountain shows,
Where brighter than the sun He glows!
This hymn does a great job of mixing narrative with explanation. It uses the word type to refer to this event. Usually, when we speak of a biblical type we are referring to something in the Old Testament that points to Christ. For example, Moses lifting up the snake in the wilderness to heal the people is a type of Christ, who was lifted up on the cross to save people from their sins. Here, however, the event of Christ glowing as the sun is a type of the glory that we may all someday share in heaven, when we see Christ in all of His glory and worship Him with all the saints who have gone before us. This event made quite an impression on the disciples and they mention it in other places. John mentions it in the first chapter of his gospel:
14And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Peter mentions this event in 2nd Peter 1:
6For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased," 18we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. 21For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Here Peter here shows that his words have authority because he is an eyewitness to the majesty of Christ. The voice of the Father spoke and told the disciples, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." Despite this overwhelming proof of Christ's divinity, Peter defers to the prophecies of Scripture, which point to Christ even more clearly than the Transfiguration itself. The Old Testament Scriptures do the same thing as Moses and Elijah on the mountain; they witness that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that we have life in His name. In this sense, the light of the mountain can be seen as the light of revelation and understanding. Christ is the light who shines in the darkness.
The 2nd and 3rd stanzas of the hymn help move the story along:
With Moses and Elijah nigh
The incarnate Lord holds converse high;
And from the cloud the Holy One
Bears record to the only Son.
With shining face and bright array
Christ deigns to manifest today
What glory shall be theirs above
Who joy in God with perfect love.
Stanza 3 is pointing out to us that Christ is revealing and showing us the glory that will be ours above. This same language is picked up at the end of the book of Revelation:
1Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
The book of Revelation describes heaven as a place where there is no need of any lights because the brightness from the glory of God will be our light. I have to encourage you to take a moment and ponder this mystery. When God revealed the back side of His glory to Moses, Moses' face shone for the rest of his life. When the disciples saw a glimpse of the glory of Jesus and heard the voice of the Father, they fell on their faces and worshipped. Ponder for a minute the wonder of the mystery of being truly and fully in the presence of Almighty God. Perhaps it should make us join in saying, "Lord, have mercy!" For those of us who have been washed and redeemed by Jesus, we will experience nothing but joy and wonder and awe when we are brought into the light of the presence of God.
And faithful hearts and raised on high
By this great vision's mystery,
For which in joyful strains we raise
The voice of prayer, the hymn of praise.
This amazing event does compel us to praise God. Paul encourages us to worship the Lord, who is our light and our life, in 1st Timothy 6:
12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, 14to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15which he will display at the proper time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
Every Sunday we come and worship the Lord, who dwells in unapproachable light. Keep this in mind this Sunday and every Sunday as we gather for worship. We approach our God with reverence and awe, knowing that He is holy and fully of majesty and He rules over all things in heaven and earth.
O Father, with the eternal Son
And Holy Spirit ever one,
We pray Thee, bring us by Thy grace
To see Thy glory face to face.
After four stanzas of more descriptive poetry, the hymn ends with a profound prayer. The prayer that we may see His glory face to face connects our prayer life to the prayer life of Jesus, who prayed before He was betrayed and crucified:
20"I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. 24Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
Jesus' glory was given to Him because the Father loved Him before the foundation of the world. Our Father loves us as well and has sent His Son to redeem us. We praise the Holy Trinity now, every Sunday in the Divine Service, and to all eternity as the Father accepts the prayers of His Son, our High Priest.