Transfiguration & Black History Month | Jeff Nowers | Feb 23, 2020
When I’m preparing a homily, the first thing I do is determine if there’s a common theme linking all the readings together. Sometimes it’s not so obvious, but today there was no mistaking it. The idea of transfiguration is at the forefront of all three readings.
“Transfiguration” refers to a complete change of form or appearance. Moses became transfigured when he climbed Mount Sinai to receive the two stone tablets of law. His transfiguration was the result of entering a cloud hovering over the summit of the mountain—a cloud described as the glory of God and a devouring fire. Jesus, famously, was transfigured before Peter, James and John on a certain mountain—possibly Mount Tabor in southern Galilee. Just as with Moses, it was a bright cloud that resulted in Jesus’ face shining like the sun. This event was so impactful that the Second Letter of Peter recounts it in detail decades later.
How do we make sense of these transfiguration stories? Some theologians have suggested that Jesus’ transfiguration is a glimpse into the transformed state of resurrection life. Perhaps the reason why this particular Gospel reading is assigned to the last Sunday before Lent is because we are to enter Lent with hope, confident that this life of dust and ashes will give way to something far more glorious.
All of that is very interesting, but I’d like to approach today’s readings from a different angle. What purpose and function does transfiguration serve? What did Moses’ and Jesus’ transfiguration accomplish? The answer is that it focused attention squarely and undividedly on them. Both Moses and Jesus helped to make the voice of God heard. In Moses’ day, God’s voice was heard through the written law that Moses received and passed on to the people. In Jesus’ time, God’s voice was heard audibly on the mountain by Peter, James and John. And the voice said, “Listen to Jesus!” Even Jesus’ closest followers up to this point weren’t really grasping what he was all about. They needed a wake-up call. They needed to recognize that Jesus’ life reflected in its fullness the human face of God. To that end, Jesus was transfigured.
Have you ever experienced a moment of transfiguration? Has someone, or something, ever been transfigured for you so that you see and understand that person or thing much more deeply and differently? It’s happened to me with the month of February. When I was growing up, I dreaded February. January was long and cold, and I couldn’t wait for March Break when I’d often go away with my parents some place warm. February got in the way because it delayed things. It was unnecessary and unwelcome.
That changed, however, when I learned about a man named Carter G. Woodson. If you’re not familiar with Dr. Woodson, he lived in the first half of the 20th century. He was an outstanding historian on the faculty of Howard University in Washington, D.C., and just the second black American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. In 1926 Dr. Woodson called for the celebration of Negro History Week, to be observed during the second week of February. In 1970 activists at Kent State University called for Negro History Week to be expanded to Black History Month, covering the entirety of February. When I learned of all this as a teenager, it transformed—or transfigured—the month of February for me. It became a month of celebrating important historical accomplishments obscured by the enduring stain of racism.
Did you know that Ontario was the first Canadian province to pass the Racial Discrimination Act in 1944? The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, an important international union of black workers, fought hard for this legislation. Prior to its adoption, segregation could be practiced in Ontario with virtual impunity. And, sadly, that continued even after the Racial Discrimination Act was passed because the government lacked the resolve to enforce it. If blacks wanted to file a complaint, they needed to hire their own counsel and take the initiative themselves—but many didn’t have the resources to do this.
Blacks continued to push for more change. In 1961 the Ontario Human Rights Commission was established, directed by Dr. Daniel G. Hill, an American-born black Canadian scholar, educator and activist. He was also the father of award-winning author Lawrence Hill and pop singer Dan Hill. By the mid 1970s human rights commissions were present in every Canadian province, and a federal commission was set up to oversee the Canadian Human Rights Act. In 1982 Queen Elizabeth signed into law the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These developments have made acts of racial discrimination illegal. But racism still exists, and the filing of complaints is a long process with small outcomes. Today blacks continue to fight for structural change, which is why movements like Black Lives Matter are so important.
Black History Month has been officially recognized in the United States since 1976. Canada took a long time to catch up. In fact, it wasn’t until 1995 when Jean Augustine, one of the very few black Members of Parliament, introduced a motion in the House of Commons to recognize Black History Month. It was adopted unanimously. The Senate only formally recognized Black History Month in 2008.
Why am I mentioning all of this in a homily? Because these are historical accomplishments that too often have been lost in our social memory. Black Canadians have given so much to the fight for equality and human dignity. They have also contributed a great deal to Anglicanism in Canada. This afternoon many will gather at St. Paul’s Bloor Street for the annual Diocesan Black History Service. It is one gesture of recognition of the contributions that black Anglicans continue to make in our churches, culturally, liturgically and theologically.
Transfiguration isn't something that only effects certain people—like Moses and Jesus. It can also effect historical events and circumstances. Black History Month is an opportunity to see history transfigured, to see the bigger picture of details that often go unnoticed or unacknowledged. So if I can leave you with some homework for this last week of February: read a book by a black Canadian author, or visit a black-owned business (there are a lot more around than you might think), or attend a black history library lecture. Let’s celebrate the many accomplishments that black people continue to offer our city and our world. In doing that, perhaps we will find ourselves in a moment of transfiguration.