Finally, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we move on from the Day of Resurrection—only to transition to the topic of shepherds and sheep! In fact, today is commonly referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” For me, this day brings to mind the many paintings and stained-glass windows that we have all seen of Jesus’ cradling a snow-white lamb in his arms or of his carrying a poor little stray on his shoulders. When I was a child, this Gospel story reminded me of the nursery rhyme “Mary had a little lamb. It’s fleece was white as snow.” Not living in the country, these images were all I knew about sheep until I was well into my 20s. Imagine my shock when I first saw real sheep up close and in person. They weren’t as white as snow at all! In fact, they were filthy and smelly beasts. And I am told that they aren’t terribly bright! So, why on earth does Jesus compare his followers to sheep and himself to a shepherd?
Well, Jesus doesn’t tell us in so many words, but I have some educated guesses. I suspect that Jesus compares his followers to sheep, not because of our stupidity or our lack of hygiene, but because, like sheep, we have a tendency to stray. Recall Isaiah 53, “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned every one to his own way.” Jesus, as our shepherd, is there to gather us back into the fold when we stray. And he will go before us to lead us to the green pastures and still waters mentioned in Psalm 23. Note that I said “he will go before us.” In the Middle East, the shepherd goes ahead of the flock, and the sheep are trained to recognize the shepherd’s voice and to follow his lead. Likewise, Jesus, as our shepherd, is one who has gone ahead of us, and we are expected to follow in his footsteps.
Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and the story of the Transfiguration completes the season by bringing us back full circle to the theme of manifestation. (As you may know, the English word epiphany derives from the Greek word for manifestation.) The season started on the Feast of the Epiphany with the story of the Magi, symbolizing the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Today’s Gospel story deals with another epiphany, the divine manifestation of Christ to his three closest disciples.
This year, we hear Matthew’s account. And in some ways, his version is the least difficult. In the other accounts, it’s not clear how we are meant to understand this story. Is it real? Is it describing something factual that any bystander would have been able to witness? Matthew’s Gospel helps us here. In this Gospel, Jesus himself refers to what has occurred as a “vision.” Is it real? Yes, but on a level of reality that transcends the everyday. Would any bystander who was at hand have been able to witness this event? Maybe not. Divine visions often belong to the realm of private mystical experience.
Given that the Transfiguration story is a vision, we should not be surprised by the occurrence of symbolism that requires interpretation. And we find such symbolism in the very first words of the account. The Gospel reading starts by telling us that six days after the Confession of Peter, Jesus takes his three closest disciples to a mountain top. Now in the Old Testament, many numbers had special numerological significance. But 6 isn’t one of them. There is only one place where the number 6 has a special significance—in the story of Moses on Mt. Sinai that we heard read in the first reading. For six days, a cloud covered Mt. Sinai; on the seventh day, God spoke to Moses from the cloud. In the story of the Transfiguration, the very timing of the event has symbolic significance. It hints that what is about to happen is as momentous as the giving of the Law to Moses.