This Sunday Western Christianity celebrates the “Transfiguration.” The Revised Common Lectionary gives us the story from Luke 9:28-36, because it is “Year C” when Luke’s Gospel is the focus.
Just Luke 9:28-36 for Me Please
The lectionary includes an optional extension of the reading, Luke 9:37-43a. I’m not going to discuss it. In Luke’s chronology that story is a day later, and I find the Transfiguration is absolutely fascinating. Plus I suspect it is way too easy for modern and post-modern minds to want to skip past such a strange and miraculous story.
The Transfiguration — Window into Hidden Truth
You know the story, right? Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain, so they can watch while he is transformed into a being of light.
Not so fast, bucko.
First off, the reason he went up the mountain was to pray. He seems to do that often enough after a busy day of ministry. (Not a bad idea for his followers when you think about it.)
And sometimes when he went up to pray he wanted some company. If Gethsemane is the model, then it doesn’t mean he wanted to sit in a circle and all pray out loud together. Think instead of the Desert Fathers and Mothers who went far from the crowds to pray “alone” but seem to have often been near enough to other hermits for company.
More important than the reason for their heading uphill is what happened when they got there.
Was Jesus transformed? Or were their eyes allowed to see what is normally hidden?
And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory …” (Luke 9:29-31)
Either way, I think the great thing about the Transfiguration scene is that the Apostles saw something deeply true — several things, really. They saw with their eyes what they had been growing to believe in their hearts: This Jesus whom they followed was more than an ordinary man.
What might you and I see if our eyes were opened to see that each person around us is created in the image of God?
What Peter, James, and John saw was something far more: Jesus was not, like you and me, created according to the pattern, “in” the image of God. Rather they saw Jesus who actually “is” the image of God — the pattern himself, of whom each of us is a damaged copy.
At the very best you and I are like a photocopy of a photocopy, losing some of the details in the process.
More realistically, we are a smudged copy, with our nature damaged by the sin of humanity, and more particularly by our own bad choices.
But on the mountain the Apostles looked at Jesus with at least some of the veil lifted. They saw God in the flesh, shining in glory.
The Context — After Advanced Training
I suspect I’m not the only one who wishes God provided revelations of his glory a bit more often — like, maybe, to me.
What can we say about Jesus’ choice to make this revelation when, and to whom, he did?
- It comes to those who followed Jesus first and remained closest to him throughout.
- It comes after they had listened to Jesus teaching and watched him working for a long while.
- Notably it comes after Jesus had not only called them as disciples (“learners”) but commissioned them as Apostles (“sent ones”). (Luke 6:12-13)
- It comes after Jesus had actually empowered them and sent them out on their first mission, during which they took risks and God performed wonders through them. (Luke 9:1-6)
- Significantly it comes after they returned from their mission and confessed Jesus to be God’s Messiah. (Luke 9:20)
All this to say the three who saw Jesus’ Transfiguration were not just any old believers. They were the chosen among the chosen, well advanced in training, in faith, and in service.
The Cloud — the Place of Revelation
I’m sure they were baffled. Peter’s odd suggestion makes that plain, even without Luke’s explanation at the end:
Peter said to Jesus,
‘Master, it is good for us to be here;
let us make three dwellings,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’
—not knowing what he said.” (Luke 9:33 NRSV)
In all the attention we give to the shining light of the Transfiguration, we tend to miss the darkness that follows.
While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.” (Luke 9:34 NRSV)
After the gift of seeing so much, they suddenly could see nothing — everything was a fog.
But that darkness was also a gift.
To prove that darkness is a gift I could point you to the classic 14th century English book on prayer, The Cloud of Unknowing or to its ancient predecessors, Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, or the work of Pseudo-Dionysius.
All of these would tell you that our senses, which God created, are not capable of grasping the God who created us. Our senses grasp creation, and God is not part of creation. When we are in direct contact with God we are beyond our senses.
It’s like when I was hiking in the Cascade foothills as a teenager. We went up (imagine Moses genuinely closer to the presence of God) but we found the top of the mountain enshrouded in cloud. Our senses saw nothing, though God was really there.
So, my friend, if you pray and feel nothing, see nothing, hear nothing, do not despair: you are like Peter, James, and John after the Transfiguration.
You are in the presence of God. That’s a gift. But God’s presence is not something your senses can receive.
Luke shows us that it is indeed a gift because while their sight was blinded by the cloud, God spoke audibly:
This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35 NRSV)
They saw a Transfiguration that confused them. But in the darkness of the cloud, they came to know what it meant: Jesus, whom they followed and loved, whom they confessed to be the Messiah, is actually even more than that: he is God’s own Son.
It’s a bit frustrating: We want God to show us everything clearly, to speak with absolute certainty. Like it or not, God choses to speak in the terrifying confusion of darkness.
The Meaning — Crucifixion and Resurrection as New Exodus
What, though, about those other guys at the Transfiguration?
- Suddenly they saw Moses, the lawgiver, the one who parted the waters to lead the people of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt.
- Suddenly they saw Elijah, the prototypical prophet who parted the waters so he and his disciple could cross over.
And what did Jesus talk about with the embodiment of the Old Testament, the Law and the Prophets, in glory?
They appeared in glory and were speaking of his DEPARTURE, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:31 NRSV)
The English translations hide the most significant word here.
They…were speaking of his EXODUS, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
Jesus wasn’t just about to “depart” from Jerusalem.
This was a new Exodus.
Jesus was about to lead his people out of slavery like Moses had led the Israelites. But this would not be out of earthly bondage in physical chains. Jesus would lead humanity out of its slavery to its own broken nature, to sin, to the flesh and its twisted passions.
Jesus was about to lead his people through the waters (aka through our baptism into Christ) like Moses and Elijah had led people through the waters.
When Jesus went to Jerusalem, he would conquer death by death, raising up a renewed human nature, to be transformed from glory into glory, renewed in his own image.
That’s what’s so cool about the Transfiguration.
My annual lenten prayer class is open for registration — but only through Ash Wednesday. We’ll work on the Jesus Prayer and other classic Christian ways of praying that help to bring focus to the life of prayer. If you want full information, or to sign up, click on this button:
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