In case last Friday’s festivities [Feb 2] slipped by you, it was a triple header of celebrations: Groundhog Day [Phil didn’t see his shadow so get out your Bermudas and flip-flops], the Feast of the Presentation [remembering Jesus’ Temple appointment for his Bris milal, בְּרִית מִילָה, Luke 2:22-40], AND the premier anniversary of the longest running, primetime gameshow in television history [twenty-five years live / syndicated], “What’s My Line?” [Feb 2, 1950] The premise of “What’s My Line?” was simple: the TV host introduced an unknown person to the celebrity panel who by stealth and clever tactics tried to ferret out the person’s identity with questions invoking only “yes” or “no” responses. The panel then was blindfolded [ladies having fetching decorations on their blinders], a famous celebrity introduced who signed in to much applause, and with disguised voice and occasional coaching from the host, hoped to elude discovery.
The use of “line” as occupation or skill set is the twenty-first of thirty-nine separate and somewhat distinct meanings of the word, so declares the Wikipedia® Oracle. The panel of “What’s My Line?” themselves brought to bear their own considerable talents for detective work. Early cast members included host John Charles Daly, a well-known public personality, actor, gameshow host, a respected journalist, as well as son-in-law of Chief Justice Earl Warren. The panel frequently included Bennett Cerf, punster co-founder and editor of Random House Publishing. In 1933 Cerf won “United States vs One Book Called Ulysses,” a landmark lawsuit challenging government censorship [see Wikipedia® Oracle yet again]. Arlene Francis, whose gracious presence continued from the second show to the end of syndication, was a pioneer in the radio-television industry, being one of the first women to host her own program. She was also an accomplished stage and screen actor. Dorothy Kilgallen was a seasoned radio personality and a highly respected, dogged journalist who poked around in the dark places of life where angels feared to tread. The show depended upon gifted, erudite, articulate panel members whose ability to think and reflect was, in fact, far more significant than looking presentable on camera. They had little at all in common with present-day “reality tv,” a number of those shows cluttering the airwaves with non-stop bleeping of inane conversations of folks mired in their maladies and disfunctions. Such shows also turn the viewers into voyeurs of the perverse, pathetic, and tragic.
While “What’s My Line?” and its sister show “I’ve Got a Secret” were not ready founts of wisdom, they did present intelligent people engaged in some clever sleuthing without having “all the facts” (unless they could flush them out). Their ability to phrase questions to produce the most helpful answers (given the game’s strictures) and minds honed to remember and connect apparently unrelated tidbits of information to draw appropriate conclusions was actually rather good modeling for the folks tuning in. The panelists remain, in fact, good models for Christians from day to day, week to week, as we hear, reflect on, and pray about the Good News of God unfolding in our midst.
A case in point is this coming Sunday’s observance, the Festival of Our Lord’s Transfiguration [for Lutherans always the last Sunday after the Epiphany before Ash Wednesday]. As we heard when celebrating the Baptism of Our Lord several weeks ago, a voice from the heavenly heights proclaims Jesus the Beloved Son. We also are told by the voice in no uncertain terms: Listen to him! Like those observant panelists on “What’s My Line?,” being followers of Jesus demands that we listen carefully, too. It is vital that we ponder what we hear week after week from the Old and New Testaments, the hymns we sing, the preaching that anchors God’s Good News right here in our midst, in day-to-day living wherever that might take us, and the prayers which emerge from life lived as people of faith. We don’t need anything dumbed down; neither do we shirk appropriate attentiveness to the Word by a: “God luvs us anyway, so no matter…”
The old collect [prayer of the day] for the Second Sunday of Advent in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer presents the modus operandi for how Christians receive and apply God’s Word: Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience, and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. And, in case it also has slipped your attention, there is a gracious plenty of “holy Scriptures” to be read, marked, learned, and digested without getting scriptural indigestion [the B.I.B.L.E. I use weighs in at 3 pounds, 10.06 ounces]. This is a group project [why Sunday School is also so important] where insights are shared, pastoral preaching is an “opening up of the Word in our midst,” not a threatening harangue or feel-good slogans. The hymns and prayers assist us to become the gifted ambassadors God’s Spirit has appointed us to be.
The executive committee of the disciples, Peter, James, and John, were asked by Jesus to accompany him to a lofty spot in one of the disserted places we discussed last week. Much like the “What’s My Line?” panelists dealing with the Mystery Guest, the disciples were blinded and puzzled by what was unfolding. Jesus suddenly was transfigured. Although recognizable to them, he was substantially “different,” too, glowing even. The bewildered and frightened disciples watched as Jesus chatted with Moses the Law Bringer and Elijah the Prophet. Mark doesn’t suggest that they heard or understood this conversation among the top V.I.P.s of faith, just gob smacked by the sight. We likely would have joined them in a jaw-dropping stare. Peter the Impatient finally breaks in, offering to do the only thing he can think of as a pious Jewish male. The Festival of Booths [Deuteronomy 16:13-17; John 7:2-9] came to mind as Jesus brought them to a secluded spot. The Jewish festival required the construction of three-sided shelters of branches reminiscent of the makeshift shelters they knew during their period in the wilderness. Peter offered to construct them for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, but his offer was beside the point since they remained only for that fleeting glimpse of glorious revelation. Like the insightful, reflective panelists trying to understand their mystery guests, Jesus’ disciples wonder why these patriarchs have appeared with Jesus. Why this, why now, and why does Jesus forbid the disciples even to mention this until “he comes into his glory,” meaning after his suffering, death, and resurrection?
The Gospel writer Mark is insistent that Jesus can be understood and his identity fully known only when everything needful is in place, which most certainly demands that they also witness their Lord risen from the dead [Mark 9:2-9]. The Transfiguration is the confirmation of several significant aspects of Jesus’ identity. First, they behold Jesus present with Moses and Elijah flanking him; it is a glimpse into God’s reality, into God’s ever-present “NOW.” It is why Jesus can be as present to us NOW as he was to his disciples THEN and to Moses and Elijah, buried or taken up in a whirlwind long before Jesus’ birth. Moses, the Law Bringer, confirms Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law AND the Prophets [Matthew 5:17-20]. Whatever good news, divine regard, and holy teachings Moses stone tablets recorded for God’s children Jesus has embodied in his own person. However, his total obedience and regard for the Father’s will and mission will not be understood until the crucifixion. The denouement comes in Mark 15:33-39 when the awestruck Centurian echoes the Father’s words from the cloud. The venerable prophets Elijah and Moses are the subject of another prophecy: Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes [Malachi 4:4-5]. God has given Elijah a task similar to John the Baptizer who was acknowledged by Jesus as the greatest forerunner [Matthew 11:7-11a]. Elijah’s return would herald the imminent arrival of the Messiah. The Sedar or Passover Meal celebrates this each year with a place of honor set at the table for the Prophet.
So, “What’s THEIR line?” The vision on the Mount of Transfiguration is a spiritual bridge connecting inextricably the Old Covenant to the New Covenant Christ accomplishes in his own person. Moses and Elijah play central rolls, yet so do the disciples (including even us in our confusion), for God’s revelation has transformative impact on all who struggle to understand, to all trying to embrace the mystery of God in Christ. The more we understand the identity of the One who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light, the more blessed the coming Lenten journey will be.