The truth is that Moses had always wanted to know what his face looked like. Not just his ordinary face, I mean, he knew what that looked like. He was a boy born by the water, the baby in the basket, the adopted son of an Egyptian princess whose house was filled with polished brass and pools aplenty that reflected Moses’s face back to him whenever he felt like looking. No, this longing came later, long after his childhood in royal palaces, after his flight into the wilderness and his encounter with the burning bush and his return to Egypt with a rod of power in his hand and the words of God in his mouth. This was later, in the wilderness, after the Red Sea had nestled back down between its banks and the Israelites were on their way to the land flowing with milk and honey. It was then that Moses began to wonder what exactly his face looked like.
He had just climbed Mount Sinai, sat down in the presence of the living God and stayed a while. He had heard God’s voice speak to him, felt God’s presence with him, even seen a tiny bit of God’s own self as God passed by the mountain. True, the tiny bit he had seen had been of God’s back, and true, God had told him that he, Moses, could not yet see God’s face, but what he had seen was enough for him to feel steeped in the presence of the Almighty, wrung out and still dripping with holiness. And when he came down the mountain, he was bursting with excitement to share what he had seen and heard. Not just the commandments that God had given him (again) but the feeling of being that close to eternity. He could hardly wait to talk to Joshua and Miriam, to tell them what it had been like to feel the earth rumble beneath his feet and not be able to tell where the rumbling stopped and the voice of God began. He wanted to share everything with them, to open the moment wide and let them in so that they too could be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.
But when he arrived in the camp, he was greeted not with grateful embraces and eager questions but with bewildered stares and furrowed brows. Moses, the people said – your face. Moses touched his face and felt nothing. Your face, look at your face. And how do I look at my own face, he said, impatient to know what they were on about. Your face is shining. Moses put his palm on his cheek; it felt warm now, glowing with the first flicker of frustration. No, he said, it must be the light of the sun, or the sweat glistening on my brow. And anyway, I have more important things to tell you. He started to speak, to tell them all that the Lord had shared with him. But the people could barely listen. They couldn’t get past the glow coming from Moses’s skin; they were disturbed and they were distracted, and so he borrowed a veil from his sister Miriam and tied it over his face. The people relaxed and went back to their lives, and Moses went back to his tent, perplexed and wondering. Why were his people so afraid? Why could they not listen, not look? And it was then that he started to wonder just what his face looked like.
He never really found out. Oh, he had continued to step into God’s presence. And he had continued to come down the mountain shining like the sun, but he had never seen what his face looked like when he did. There were no reflecting pools in the wilderness, no place where he might find his reflection gazing back at him. And so Moses had gone to his dusty grave with this longing unsatisfied, still wondering, after all those years, what his face had actually looked like.
And so it seemed right and good that he found himself here, on this other holy mountain, standing before the very Son of God, who face was now transformed and glowing. It seemed right and good that he should be here to witness the transfiguring love of God. He saw Jesus’ face and recognized in it the divine light that he could now see face to face. As always, it dazzled and delighted him. But when he looked down the mountain, what he saw there utterly amazed him. Because there he saw Peter, James and John, that perpetual triumvirate of inspiration and struggle, looking directly at Jesus’ face. Moses saw them gazing right into the face of their teacher. They were not shielding their eyes. They did not look away. They were exhausted, even Moses could see that, but they kept their eyes fixed on Jesus, looking with wonder at each beam of light that shone from his face. They were transfixed, drinking it all in, and Moses was moved by their presence. He saw in them a special kind of faithfulness, these disciples who could gaze upon that glory and keep their eyes wide open.
And so while Moses stood on the mountaintop and spoke to Jesus about his future – about the brutality and the glory that they all knew awaited him – he kept one eye on the disciples, watching them watching Jesus. What a thing, he thought. What a thing to be standing in the very presence of God and to not flinch. His heart swelled with love and gratitude, and he smiled as he thought of the stories those men would tell when they went down the mountain. How they might tell the other disciples what it felt like to be in the very presence of God, what it felt like to bear witness to the truth.
Moses was still watching carefully when Peter rose to his feet and began to speak. It is good for us to be here, he said. Let us build three dwelling-places, one for each of you. And as he heard these words, Moses smiled with a surge of understanding and compassion. For he knew this feeling well. After all, he and his people had built their own shelter for the Almighty in the wilderness. But Moses could now see what this faithful disciple could not – that there was no need for such shelter anymore. Now, there was no need for a veil, no need for a barrier, for now everything was different. Do you not see, he thought to himself? This is the Son. This is God made flesh so that you can taste and touch and see. This same God who once covered me in the cleft of a rock and showed me only a bit of his back has now humbled himself, limited himself, taken on human flesh just for this reason – so that you can look upon him without shelter, so that you can look upon him full in the face, so that you can see his glory revealed and not be afraid.
And just as Moses was about to open his mouth to say these things, he felt the ground begin to tremble. A cloud of thick darkness began to swirl and descend upon the mountaintop, and Moses’s smile deepened. He heard the sound of the rumbling grow into a sound he knew so very well, the very voice of the Almighty, speaking the very same words that had been ringing in his own heart. This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him!
There is no need for shelter now. There is no need for self-protection. Listen to him. Look upon him. Do not shield yourself from what is here, for what is here is for you. This light is for you, to give you courage in the darkness, to illuminate your own words and actions. This light is for you, to burn away all the fear that causes you to bury your head in the sand, to build walls between yourselves and others, to boast and battle and blame. This light is for you, to shine into this world with such clarity, such boldness, that you can see the path of compassion and generosity and humility that leads through this wilderness to the milk and honey of my kingdom. This light is for you, so that you can see your own beautiful face, the person I created you to be.
Look. The fullness of God is made flesh for you, given for you. So do not be afraid. Come, seek his face. Find his presence here in this bread and this wine. “Be attentive to this holy presence as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” Look upon him with eyes and minds and hearts wide open. Listen to his words rumbling in your heart. Gather the strength you need here from this altar to go down the mountain, your own face shining with the presence of Christ that dwells within you richly. Let your light so shine before others that they see God’s own glory, let your life be a spotless mirror of the wondrous workings of God. Come, seek His face, and then show asdfyour face to the world. No need to wonder what it looks like. For it is your beautiful face, and it looks like love.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
The Feast of the Transfiguration, 6 August 2017
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia