At the end of December, my mother and I went to see Les Miserables, starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway. I really, really, really liked this movie. Most people I know who have seen also really liked it. There are some who dissent. For those of you unfamiliar with either the play or the movie adaptations, it is loosely based on Victor Hugo’s novel.
Set against the backdrop of post-Revolution France, it is the story of a man, Jean Valjean, who spends 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread in order to feed his dying nephew. Upon his release, he encounters a priest who shows him mercy and the love of God. Valjean is a man whose life is at its lowest point when he has a mountain top experience in which he meets God, his life utterly transformed.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus goes up a mountain to pray. He takes with him Peter, James, and John. On that mountain, Jesus’s appearance is changed. We are not told what his face looks like before, or after, this time on the mountain; but we are told that his clothes become dazzling white.
While on the mountain, Jesus meets two other men who have also gone to mountains in order to meet with God: Moses and Elijah. Generally speaking these two men represent the two facets of the Jewish faith: The Law and the Prophets.
The Law was given to Moses on Mount Sinai. The first time, God created the tablets. After Moses broke the tablets in a fit of rage, he went back up the mountain where Moses met again with God and etched new tablets himself. These were the Ten Commandments, God’s covenant with the Israelites.
When Moses came down the mountain with these tablets of the covenant, the skin of his face is shining. But this terrified Moses’s brother Aaron and the other Israelites. So, Moses hid his face. He put on a veil and he hid his face.
This happened repeatedly. Moses would go before the Lord, take the veil off of his face, speak with God, return to the people, his face shining, and Moses would put the veil back on, hiding his face again until he returned once more to speak with God.
The story of Elijah, who represents the prophets, is that after speaking zealously for the Lord, angering those in power. Every other prophet has been killed. Seeking to save his life, Elijah ran away to the wilderness. From there, he is called by God to a mountain. God promises that the presence of the Lord will pass before Elijah. A great windstorm, earthquake and fire pass by. But God was in none of these. Instead, God was in the silence, as a still small voice, that followed.
So here we are today, on a mountain, with Jesus and his trusty sidekicks, Peter, James and John. This takes place eight days after Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus responds by predicting his own death.
These four men ascend the mountain, Jesus is transfigured, and Moses and Elijah just pop in for a chat. They begin to talk, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, of Jesus’s impending crucifixion: the departure which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.
Now, Peter, James, and John were really tired, but they stayed awake and witnessed this sight. And Peter’s response was, “Hey, maybe could pitch a tent for each of you!” This, to me, is hilarious. I sometimes wonder if Peter really was a bumbling idiot or if the writers of the gospels just needed a bit more comedy in their work.
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the book Fahrenheit 451, but it’s a story about a future America in which books have been outlawed. In order to protect literature, a conclave is formed of individuals who each memorize a book. They become, in essence, these living texts, and each person teaches their book to a new arrival such that none of the stories are ever lost.
This gathering of on the mountain is similar. If people are books, Jesus is meeting with the Old Testament. And Peter wants to build himself a portable library. God, however, has other ideas. A cloud encompasses them. Terrified, they hear a voice that says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” The cloud disappears, taking Moses and Elijah with it. And the four men go down the mountain.
The story continues in the weeks to come during the season of Lent. It is a story of the unveiling of God’s goodness. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians that “To this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds.” Paul is referring to Jews in the first century who have rejected Jesus. Those who reject Jesus cannot see the glory of God.
Indeed, Paul states, Jesus himself is the glory of God. Those who hold to the Law continue to be veiled from God’s presence, for it is only Christ who sets aside the veil and reveals the glory of God to all people, and in knowing God’s glory through Christ, there is no fear.
Through Christ, you see, we have access to God. The veil is removed, and we see and are seen by the divine. No more hiding behind a veil; truly and deeply known; what Christ gives us in the reconciling work of his death is true intimacy between us and God and between each other.
We are, Paul writes, “with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” We are not merely permitted to see God in Jesus, we ourselves are being transfigured with him, into the very image of God, and we can see it in ourselves; we can see it in each other.
When Moses met God on a mountain top, his face shined. When Jesus met with God on that mountain top, his face and clothing shined. Frankly, I think Paul is right. In many respects this phenomenon holds true today. When people encounter God and come to know the depth of the love of God, they are transfigured. They look different. They have a tendency to shine.
In Les Miserables, after meeting the priest, Valjean assumes a new identity—he looks different, he is transfigured—and he devotes the remainder of his life to doing good works. This many Christians I know, who love the movie, claim is the gospel message. However, Valjean also remains on the run from his past and an overly zealous lawman, Javert, who wants to bring Valjean to justice for breaking parole. Valjean spends the remainder of his life running from the law and hiding his past from those he loves. Though he dies in their presence, he dies without ever truly being known by them.
Les Miserables is one of the saddest movies I’ve ever seen. While it is a story of the transformative, redemptive, and reconciling power of the love of God accomplished through the death of Christ juxtaposed against the hard power of the law, it seems to miss the point entirely.
Too many people hold to the law. Too many people climb a mountain, spend a bit of time with Jesus, and the Moses, and Elijah; and when the moment is over, and they are left only in the presence of Christ, they continue to hold to the Law. They judge their past according to the laws of Moses ; they forget that they have been redeemed and transformed by Jesus.
They live their lives in fear, running from their past, and hiding it from those who would seek to know them; as though their story only began at the moment they met Jesus and they must hide what came before. Too many people hide the shameful things, and continue to be haunted by them.
This is not the gospel message. The gospel message is one of freedom. The gospel message is one of reconciliation. The gospel message is one of removing the veil, and sharing our stories with each other, that we might know and be known by one another. In hearing their stories, we enter into their life and share our own stories and lives with them. It is in the shared experience and in the knowing of others that we come to love them. And this is that is at the heart of the gospel message: that love is everlasting.
Here in the Midwest, we do not have mountains we can ascend. We do not get to climb a hill and pray in the bodily presence of Jesus. We must settle for the fact that we are being transformed into the likeness of Christ. And in that transformation, when we meet our brother and sisters, they are reflection of his glory as well. We have the opportunity to see the reflection of Jesus in them. And remember the truth that once was spoken: To love another person is to see the face of God.