Moses, Seeing God and the Transfiguration

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“In Exodus 33 we find the paradox of intimacy and distance, knowledge and ignorance, presence and transcendence. Moses in the Tent of Meeting seeks guidance from the Lord for his work as leader of the people of Israel; he is told, ‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest’ (v. 14); but Moses wants more, and asks to see the glory of God. To this request comes the reply, ‘You cannot see my face; for man cannot see me and live’ (v. 20). As this incident unfolds we see a distinction between what Moses does see and what he is unable to see: ‘And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand upon the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.’” (vv. 21-23). The mystery remains, and Moses is not able to see God face to face. But the Israelites are aware of the effect of Moses’ time in the presence of God, for the face of Moses shines ‘because he had been talking with God’, shines with a brightness so great that his face had to be veiled (Exodus 34:29-35). Here we have an early example in the Scriptures of the human face transfigured because of close contact with God; it is an experience that is repeated in the lives of many saints. Much of what we see in the life of Moses we see also in the lives of other Old testament prophets, such as Elijah (1 Kings 19) and Isaiah (Isaiah 6), so it is not surprising that these Old Testament episodes become ‘types’ which help to interpret later events, and which find greater significance in the light of the subsequent developments.

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St. Gregory of Nyssa used the life Moses as a starting point and framework for his exposition of Christian ascetical theology, and from Gregory derives a while tradition of apophatic theology which uses the imagery of darkness to articulate the Christian experience of living with the mystery of God’s presence. The theophanies involving Moses and Elijah are included in the Scripture readings at Vespers for the Feast of Transfiguration .”   (John Baggley, Festival Icons for the Christian Year, p. 60-61).

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