I’m going to be honest and say that the only thing I like about Valentine’s Day is those chalky candy hearts with words on them. The sayings are inconsequential, I actually like the flavour of those hearts. Normally, I’m one of those people who doesn’t need to mark this day as anything special. But I thought I would do some research. Did you know that there are actually three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus. My favourite legend is about a priest name Valentine during the third century in Rome. The Emperor at the time outlawed marriage because only single men could be soldiers and the Roman empire needed to bulk up their army. Valentine rebelled by continuing to perform marriages in secret and paid with his life for those actions. But the other Valentines also have mystery and legends surrounding their martyrdom. If that’s not confusing enough, the reason for Valentine’s Day being in February is also unknown. Some believe, as with most Saint’s days, that Feb. 14th commemorates the burial day of one of the saint Valentines. Other scholars believe that the date was chosen in an effort to “Christianize” the pagan festival of Lupercalia, much like Dec. 25 was the festival of Saturnalia. Lupercalia was a festival that celebrated Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture or a fertility god. Part of that festival involved single women putting their name in a big urn and the single men drawing names from the urn. The couple would be paired up for a year and surprisingly many of those matches ended in marriage. Exchange words of affection or handwritten letters on Valentine’s day took place as early as the 1700s. In 1840 the first cards were mass produced by Esther Howland. Even today Valentine’s day is the second largest card-selling holiday- second only to Christmas. Fascinating stuff right- but it also just makes me even more cynical about the holiday- as some made up holiday by the big greeting card business. Luckily, this year, we have another great feast day to celebrate- and one that I find far more interesting. Today is Transfiguration Sunday!
Ok, I know, it doesn’t have the same ring but the Gospel story today really helps us understand why this is a special day in our church calendar. While we make a bigger deal over Valentine’s day than the Transfiguration- this story is indicating some very important details about Jesus- not only who Jesus is but his link to the entire story of God and God’s people.
Jesus invites Peter, James and John to accompany him up the mountain, to be a part, to be by themselves. When they get to the top, Jesus is transfigured, that is , his appearance is altered. In this moment of change Elijah and Moses appear on the scene. All of a sudden as the light begins to blind the disciples, a cloud overshadows everything and a voice says “this is my son, listen to him!” When the disciples pull themselves together its only Jesus who is standing with them.
The transfiguration of Jesus is a strange story in the Bible. It is a very different kind of epiphany. In part because there is significance to the presence of Moses and Elijah that reveals who Jesus is. They are the two greatest prophets within the Hebrew tradition. They had a very special, even intimate, relationship with God. The Jewish tradition believes that these two prophets were so closely linked to God that they avoided death, both going directly to heaven. Having them show up demonstrates that there are similarities between these prophets and Jesus. They all worked to help the people of God remain faithful despite the fact that the people were being drawn into idolatrous behaviour. All of them laboured to keep the people of God hopeful even as the people suffered under oppression and totalitarian leadership. This is good company for Jesus to be in. Of course what differentiates the prophets from Jesus is that the voice of God announces that Jesus is God’s son.
I think it is also important to note that this takes place on a mountain. If we think back to the story of Moses and the Exodus, every time God wanted to speak to Moses, Moses had to climb up to great heights. We could go back further when God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son on a mountaintop. Or go back even further to the ark finding rest on a mountaintop. Throughout scripture mountains not only hold a place of reverence but are places where big changes with God happen.
In his commentary, Dr. Mark Calder actually suggests that preachers compare the mountaintop experience of the transfiguration with the elation that lovers, especially new lovers, feel and how we want to capture that feeling forever. In many ways he’s right because as soon as the transfiguration takes place, on that mountaintop, Peter is so elated that he acknowledges the privilege it is to be there at that moment by stating, “it is good for us to be here”. He then clearly wants to capture that moment, that feeling, and hold onto it for ever when he says, “let us make three dwellings.” But in an instant a cloud overshadows the events and from it a voice repeats what was said at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, my beloved, listen to him!”
Not only is this Valentine’s day, not only is it Transfiguration Sunday but the season of epiphany comes to an end today. Now that Jesus’ identity and purpose has been revealed and established we can begin the long journey to the cross through the season of Lent- a journey that will turn us toward the incredible story of God’s love for us. Honestly, the story of the transfiguration is a story about love too. The transfiguration of Jesus is not the end of God’s transfiguring ways. Transfiguration often refers to a physical change- and so it may not be a familiar word, but words like transformation or alteration could work too. Through Jesus, love, which can sometimes seem trite, is not expressed in chocolates and cards but in devotion to purpose and relationship. God seeks a loving relationship with us through Jesus Christ. That’s incredible. And then God says, now you get down from the mountain and do likewise, by loving others. Amen