Today we read the story in which Jesus takes Peter, James, and John on a mountain climb. Once at the top, the disciples see a fantastical vision – we call it Transfiguration, a fancy word for a transformation into something more beautiful. Jesus’ body and clothing seem to glow with a supernatural light, they also see him talk to two figures whom they recognize from their ancient stories as Elijah and Moses, hear a voice from the cloud say, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Can you spot the differences with what was said during Jesus’ baptism?).
What was this all about, and why did we read it this morning? Well, apart from reading this story, another thing we have to do this morning – the last Sunday before Lent – is to burn the palm branches we waved on last year’s Palm Sunday. This gives us the ashes to apply to our foreheads on Wednesday, and to me, symbolizes the fact that while in principle we are willing to praise God from time to time, when life gets difficult, our inclination to connect with God burns out in the “fires” of daily living. We long for God who is tangible, approachable, and active – like the Jesus of the miracles – who would transfigure our lives here and now, and we are understandably disheartened otherwise. Why doesn’t God help us every single time we need it? Next week, on Lent 1, we will reflect precisely on this question, as we read about Jesus’ temptation to do just this (e.g., turn stones into bread), yet resisted the impulse simply to “fix” material problems.
Sure, upon leaving the desert, Jesus is said to have performed miracles; yet, at some point, his ministry had to pivot from teaching and healing, which brought only temporary relief, to that of suffering and death, which somehow has overcome all evil forever. And it is the transfiguration episode that marks the change of direction in synoptic narratives (homework: consider, why is it absent in John?). It alerts us to stop looking for manna, and get ready to walk with Jesus into the heart of darkness, as his disciples were about to do. Perhaps, it’s the memory of this vision that eventually kept them all sane through Jesus’ pain and death (though at the time, all this display did was frighten the disciples). But why; what is the value in this? How does Jesus’ death fix anything? Why wouldn’t God want us just to ask and receive her gifts, and enjoy the “bread alone”?
And also, why wouldn’t God just give us the proof of his existence beyond all doubt and debate? Interestingly, in Matthew’s narrative specifically, transfiguration follows the chapter when the Jewish protagonists asked Jesus precisely for such a “sign from heaven” – which he denied them. Yet, in Matthew’s words, “after 6 days,” God gives this hard to miss sign to Jesus himself and to his three closest friends. Six days after what, exactly? It’s not clear; and perhaps, the author isn’t really logging days here, but telling us that transfiguration – i.e. transformation into something/one that looks like God – is the goal of all creation. Recall that in Genesis, God made the world in “6 days”, and in today’s OT passage, it was also after spending 6 days as a cloud upon a mountain, that God called Moses to join him there. Mountains, clouds, prophets, 6 days… these OT symbols are all re-used by the gospel writer to help underscore the continuity of God’s presence with people both in the wilderness of this life, and in the joy, rest, completion or perfection of it all on “the 7th day.” As such, transfiguration functions as a kind of a mid-gospel preview of the resurrection itself. In fact, the earliest Christians thought that it was the moment of resurrection that “glorified” Christ” – that is finally made him fully God – and so in transfiguration, the vision of light points to Jesus’ divine nature bound in an ordinary body.
But, in the gospels, only the disciples received this sign. And in our lives, does anything ever even come close? What would it be like for us to literally hear God’s voice, see the sky open, bathe in the light… Would it comfort or terrify us? I believe that everyone does occasionally receive such moments of extreme consolation in the midst of our ordinariness. For example, have you ever experienced a state of flow when working, writing, or creating? Or that weird feeling of trying to imagine the infinity of the cosmos, looking at the stars, sunset, sunlight falling a certain way, or a very new baby; or walking among the trees, touching someone you love… We call these experiences numinous, transcendent, or poignant if they evoke a little peaceful sadness mixed in with joy. Sure, the things I listed are ordinary, but the fact that they have the potential to stop us in our busy tracks is exactly what transfiguration means in application to our lives – an interruption in the narrative, a shift of gears, a reminder to recalibrate. And to me, they are the most solid proof I ever had that there’s more to human life than here and now.
So, have you ever “been to the mountaintop”? I wonder if in saying these words the day before he died, Martin Luther King hinted that not only he had experienced these moments of transcendence that enabled his vocation, but that like Christ, he had a premonition that his time on earth was running out. How many days do any of us have left to achieve our dreams, and who can tell when we reach the summit of our potential? For example, the work of Moses and Elijah acquires their fullest meaning only when seen in the light of Jesus (pun intended); that’s why today’s story has them stand with him in his heavenly glow. Likewise, the full significance of each of our lives will only become apparent “on the 7th day” – when we come to stand before that luminous vastness which we imagine to be our God. Until then, I find freedom in not knowing what single moment of my life will truly matter most to God or “tip the scale”; otherwise, I would have to spend my life in either self-condemnation or complacency, of which neither is appealing. And, I continue to derive my hope from such fleeting glimpses of heaven that surprise me, that transfigure the most ordinary aspects of my earthly existence, when I need it the most. Thanks be to God!
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