Friday, June 29, 2007

The Transfiguration and Moses: St. Matthew 17

St. Cyril of Alexandria expended a great amount of effort to defend the Divinity of Christ. In doing so, St. Cyril simply wanted it rightly understood that the two natures of Christ, though distinct, were in unity in the one Jesus Christ. His ardent opponent, Nestorius the heretic, believed that Jesus laid aside His deity when He became man.

St. Cyril, who lived in the 400s AD, saw this as a soteriological problem (a problem in man's salvation). If Jesus, upon becoming man, laid aside His deity, then only a man died on the cross at Golgotha and that which is creaturely was used to ransom man from sin. This would have the ill effect of putting creature above God, something that is cosmologically impossible. To bring this in to the discussion, though, does not do this whole issue between Cyril and Nestorius justice, for there was much more at stake. Nestorius' views, had they been true, would have come at a cost--the loss of the very Gospel itself.

I am no Cyrilline scholar myself, but I bring his name into this discussion because just as the two natures of Christ enjoy a unity, likewise the Old Testament and the New Testament enjoy a unity.

It is often the thought among students of the scriptures that, while the New Testament is very "user friendly" the Old Testament is like a nagging step-mother who constantly reminds the step-child that he is only a half-breed. The Old Testament often keeps us from concluding that we understand all that we are as Christians. It sometimes leaves us feeling as though we are "sub-par" Christians, not fully "getting it."

I know we are well past the Festival of the Transfiguration, but this has been on my mind, so let us delve into the scriptures in order that we may understand the unity of the Scriptures to the chagrin of Marcion the heretic.

Moses, prophet exemplar, went up the mount (Mt. Sinai). Exodus 34 gives us the account. Moses went up the mountain and in verse 5 the Lord descends in a cloud. We are told that God stood there in the cloud and "proclaimed the name of the Lord." And God proclaimed, "The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin..."(Ex. 34:6-7). It is significant that Moses, we are told, made haste and bowed face down to worship the Lord(proskuneo).

What happens after this is crucial in the grand scheme of the scriptures and of Jesus Christ. Not only is Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. He is also told, "Before all your people I will do marvels such as have not been done in all the earth...for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you"(Exodus 34:10). This is the establishment of the prophetic office. The Christological road is set as the prophetic office begins on the top of a mountain in a cloud with God.

What a chapter! At the end of chapter 34 we see something unfold. Verse 29 says, "Now it was so, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai (and the two tablets of the testimony were in Moses hand when he came down from the mountain), taht Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone while he talked with Him [God]. So when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him"(verse 30). We are told that when Moses would go in to talk with God his face would shine. Moses would speak to the people this way and then put on the veil until the next prophetic utterance.

The image and the message the church is to receive from all of this is really quite simple. Moses, a man, a sinner, one who is "slow of speech and slow of tongue"(Exodus 4:10) comes down the mountain as "God to the people." Do not take this to the illogical conclusion that this is a statement of Moses' essence. He represents God, He is a shaliach, to use the Hebrew. To say that Moses is "God to the people is not an unhealthy step, considering Exodus 4:16 says, "So he [Aaron] shall be your spokesman to the people. Andn he himself shall be as a mouth for you, *and you shall be to him as God." There it is. Moses is as God to Aaron and Aaron is his mouth. Hence, Moses is as God to the people. Revolutionary? Unheard of? So is the incarnation to Pharisees.

In St. Matthew 17 we hear of Jesus taking Peter, James and John up a mountain. Jesus is transfigured and shines in His glory. His face shone, and Moses and Elijah appear in a cloud that descended upon the mountain. Peter is thinking St. Peter wants to make tabernacles for Moses, Jesus, and Elijah. Read Exodus 33:9. St. Peter sees a connection between what he witnesses and the holy Scriptures of Exodus.

God speaks in this cloud as He did on Mount Sinai, but with a change. Rather than talking about mercy, longsuffering, and forgiveness, the voice of the Lord proclaims Jesus, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!"(St. Matthew 17:5). Jesus is the very essence of mercy, longsuffering and forgiveness. The disciples fall face down on the ground like Moses. It all ends by the disciples looking up and only seeing Jesus. The scene ends by Jesus walking down the mountain with the disciples. His face is *not* shining.

Mark the contrast: Moses--a man, a sinner, comes down the mountain his face shining with the glory of God. He holds the Ten Commandments in his hands. Holy words inscribed, but he comes down the mountain with holy oracles which condemn (2nd use of the law). Moses comes down as "God to the people." (Herein lies the notion of Shaliach--"presbuteros" "Ambassador or representative").

On the flip side: Jesus--God, without sin and Divine in essence shines on the mountain and in the cloud (This shows His Divinity). Jesus comes down the mountain not in His glory but He comes down "as man for the people." Moses comes down as God for the people. Jesus comes down as man for the people. What a strange twist, but why?

Because Christ's proper work entails Him walking down to the depths as the definitive man--true man who dies as a man and in the "likeness of sinful flesh" having kept that law of Moses. God comes down the mountain to be one of us and die for His people. Jesus comes not shining but wearing flesh.

Nestorius the heretic might have liked this emphasis of Jesus coming down the mountain as a flesh and blood man but he would miss the point. It is total irony. Just as Moses should have been coming down the mountain wearing the face of a sinner, Jesus should have come down wearing the face of divinity. Instead, Moses comes down with his face shining, and Jesus comes down with the face of a sinner.

Moses' sinful side would get the better of him when he fails to do as God instructed him in regards to producing water for the people to drink. This would keep him out of the promised land of Israel. On the flip side, Christ's divinity would come forth as God dies for the sins of the world.

It is a lot to ponder, but I think St. Cyril would like it. In the Transfiguration, we see the Divine nature and the human nature of Jesus Christ working together as the unity of Christ.

+Fr. Chadius