Violence and Transfiguration

Monday, November 14, 2011 — Week of Proper 28, Year One

Samuel Seabury, First American Bishop, 1796

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 992)

Psalms 89:1-18 (morning) // 89:19-52 (evening)

1 Maccabees 3:1-24* *found in the Apocrypha

Revelation 20:7-15

Matthew 17:1-13

We are confronted with war in the first two readings today. Then we encounter a vision of reality transfigured in the third reading. I needed the latter reading.

For our first scripture, we’re reading 1 Maccabees about the successful military revolt led by Judas Maccabees following the attempt by Syrian king Antiochus to suppress Jewish worship in 167 BCE. The rebellion created a century of Jewish independence, which was ended with the Roman conquest of 63 BCE.

Although it is a stirring story of courage and victory, the rabbis did not include the book of Maccabees in the canon of Hebrew scripture, very possibly because of its unqualified embrace of violence and nationalism. When later zealots used the Maccabeean tactics against Rome, the results were catastrophic.

Today’s passage tells of the beginning of Judas Maccabeus’ campaigns. First he forcibly required Jews to a faithful observance of the Jewish law. Any boys or men who had not been circumcised were circumcised, some against their will.

A reforming movement in the Judaism of the time had embraced many Greek characteristics. Among many Jews, particularly those who regarded themselves as cosmopolitan, it became fashionable to omit or reverse circumcision so that they could more freely participate in the exercise and education of the gymnasium. Many of these will become enemies of the Maccabean rule, and its Jewish victims.

Judas Maccabeus, although outnumbered, is successful in two military campaigns.

In Revelation we read of the postmillenial battle against Satan and of the judgment of the dead. There are times when I seem to have energy to work with this material. Today, it just seems intractable. It does strike me, though, that for all of its violent and warlike imagery, there is no portrayal of battle in Revelation. And the sword of the lamb is the Word that comes forth from the mouth of the victorious one. Triumph by word of mouth, not by violence.

Matthew’s account of the transfiguration is like a drink of fresh water today. The transfiguration also occurs under the shadow of violence. The trauma of John the Baptist’s execution is very present with Jesus and his disciples — “I tell you that Elijah has already come, and the did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” These are the words that follow the vision of the transfigured Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah.

This wondrous vision of transfiguration transcends the violence and death that is so present to us. Beyond the cross of Jesus and the beheading of John there is the insistence that the deeper reality is the dazzling vision of transfiguration.

Only if we have eyes to see beyond the surface and its violence, and look into the transfigured vision, can we trust so completely like Jesus so as to be more willing to suffer violence than to resort to it.

Past Posts