We have come to end of the season after the Epiphany. It’s been a long season this year—this is the 8th Sunday, so Christmas, the birth of Jesus, the coming of the Magi, all of that is little more than a distant memory. Still, in this long season, we have been reflecting on all of the way in which God shows Godself to us, in Jesus Christ as well as in the glory of creation. The season always ends, in all three years of the lectionary cycle, with the story we just heard, one of the gospels’ versions of the transfiguration.
It’s an eerie, strange story and to our twenty-first century minds, attuned to the fantasy worlds of sci-fi or fantasy literature, it seems to belong more to a Hollywood epic than to the New Testament. It’s quite a shock to read this story after having been reading portions of the Sermon on the Mount for the last several weeks. Here we are in the realm the supernatural, the other worldly, a huge jump from the ethical teachings of Jesus.
In that respect, this gospel story connects very well with the reading from Exodus. As I alluded to last week, most of us, when we think about the giving of the ten commandments at Mt. Sinai, think of it as single event, or, if we know the story of the Golden Calf, we think Moses had to receive them twice, because he ruined the first set when he threw them at the Israelites in the midst of their idolatrous orgy.
In fact, a close reading of Exodus reveals that Moses went up and down the mountain several times and that he received one set of laws which he read to the people. The verses we just read take place after the giving of the 10 commandments. Moses goes up the mountain, stays there for 40 days, receiving other laws. It is during this time that the Israelites make the Golden Calf. After that, Moses had to go back up the mountain to receive a second set of tablets—and a whole lot more laws, as well. It’s also worth noting that in today’s reading, before Moses goes up the mountain, he tells the people that while he’s gone, Aaron and Hur are in charge
I point all this out because of the way we tend to think about spectacular religious experiences like the appearance of God at Sinai—in earthquake, wind, and fire, or at the Transfiguration, when Jesus—the Greek word is metamorphosed—his face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. Such experiences can be transformative. They can make all the difference in the world, but they do not take place in a vacuum, above and beyond our daily lives. Even when, as is sometimes the case, we hear of mystics or visionaries who are transported into other dimensions our out of this world—St. Paul, for example, in 2 Corinthians 12 writes of being caught up into the third heaven—there’s a point at which even the greatest mystic or visionary has to come back down to earth. The question then becomes how does that experience relate to ordinary life?
In the case of the Transfiguration, it’s quite interesting. From the perspective of the lectionary, we’re very much in the same position as the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. We’ve been hearing from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus reinterprets the Law given at Sinai for his followers. Now we jump over ten chapters and hear of Jesus’ experience on this mountain. And we might wonder, well, what’s the connection between all of this?
To answer that question, we need to know a bit more about the immediate context for our reading. In the preceding chapter, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples respond, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter responds with his great confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Shortly after that, Jesus makes the first of three predictions of his suffering, execution, and resurrection, at which point Peter rebukes him. Jesus scolds Peter, then tells his followers what it means to be his disciple, that they will have to take up their crosses and follow him.
So this is the immediate context for the Transfiguration—Jerusalem and the cross loom over it, and the disciples are not quite sure what they’ve signed up for.
In this context, the Transfiguration can be read as God’s affirmation of Jesus’ ministry and of the journey that lies ahead. To be joined by Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest figures from the Jewish tradition—Moses the Great Lawgiver and Deliverer; Elijah, the prophet who stood up to the evils of King Ahab and Jezebel. Coincidentally, both Moses and Elijah experienced doubt and uncertainty even while they were on the mountain. At one point, Moses asks to see God’s glory directly; and Elijah flees to Mt. Horeb, Mt. Sinai for safety after an especially nasty confrontation with Ahab. On the mountain, both Moses and Elijah knew doubt as well as faith.
We don’t know what Jesus was thinking as he took the three disciples with him up the mountain. We don’t know whether he was concerned about what was going to happen, whether he wondered if he was up to the task ahead, but on the mountain, he receives confirmation from God of his call, his ministry, and the journey ahead. A voice comes from heaven. It says word for word, almost the exact thing the voice said at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.”
There’s only one difference, and it’s an important one. The voice goes on, commanding the disciples, “Listen to him!”
It is that voice, heard by the disciples for the first time, that Matthew uses as the cause of the disciples’ fear. They had not heard it at Jesus’ baptism, they were not there, and even if they knew Jesus was the Son of God—after all, Peter had already made his confession—the words from heaven confirming it brought terror into their hearts. But something else happened, too.
In the midst of their fear, when they had fallen on the ground, Jesus came to them. It’s one of those moments in the gospel that we might pass over with little notice, but in fact, it is something that is full of meaning because it is something we actually see rarely in the gospels.
Usually, of course, it is the disciples who come to Jesus. In John, Jesus called the disciples, by telling them, “Come and see.” In the synoptics, he asks them to follow him. And so they do. But this time, Jesus comes to them. And in that gesture, two things happen. Their fear goes away, and the miraculous event comes to an end. They go down the mountain, and return to the journey that will take them to Jerusalem, and to the cross.
The road ahead would be hard and the disciples would have difficulty accompanying Jesus. They would also have great difficulty paying attention to and understanding what Jesus would teach them along the way. We don’t know whether the experience they had on this mountain would help them through the hard times ahead. Reading the gospel closely, it seems like it is very much an event and experience set apart from all that comes before and after, that it did not give the disciples strength and courage when they needed it most.
As 21st century followers of Jesus and readers of the gospel, the Transfiguration may seem little more than one of those odd stories told in scripture, more a curiosity or puzzle than something that might give us strength, courage, and hope.
But it seems to me that in these days as we look away from where we’ve been over the past two months, and look ahead to Lent and to Holy Week, and for that matter, to life’s journeys that lie ahead for all of us, that the voice from heaven speaks to us now as it spoke to us at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, my Beloved.” And in that command, “Listen to Him” we are called, to pay attention to what he says, to learn from him, to struggle with his words, to follow his example.