The Feast of the Transfiguration
Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is the Sunday on which we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. This is always a challenge of sorts to those who preach, because it is one of a very few Scriptures that makes its Lectionary appearance not just once, but twice in the same year. This year is even more unusual, because, since it is Year C in the cycle, when we focus on the Gospel of Luke, it means that the telling of the story by Luke also happens twice in the same year, rather than having, say, Matthew’s account at the end of Epiphany and Luke’s in August.
It’s often tempting, when thinking about the Transfiguration to talk about ‘mountain top’ experiences with God and hope that we will all get to experience God in a dramatic thunder and lightning way… and experience God that way often. I will admit to having approached this Gospel lesson from that angle in sermons before. Some Christians spend their whole time wishing for a dramatic experience of God and then wonder why they’re disappointed.
Dramatic encounters of God are rare—even for saints like St. Peter. These flashes of God’s glory are incredibly rare both for the ordinary and the out of the ordinary Christian. I don’t think the story of the transfiguration is there to tell us we can all have a mountain top experience of God. I think it’s there to reveal to us who Jesus really is. It feels like Jesus in this story lets Peter, James and John peek behind the curtain to see who He really is.
So let’s have a peek behind the curtain ourselves. Jesus takes just Peter, James and John to pray with him. Incredibly, they are heavy with sleep when they get to the top of the mountain. Can you think of another occasion where Jesus takes Peter, James and John to pray with him and they fall asleep? It causes me to immediately remember what happens in the garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus, rather than olives, is being subjected to being pressed and squeezed.
I think this common behavior of falling asleep in these moments tells us something about the disciples’ inability and struggle to comprehend Jesus. The mental and spiritual work of understanding Jesus could be one thing that accounts for their sleepiness. On the mountain top, the divinity, the “God side”, of Christ is revealed to them.
They are awakened by the flashing light—the word used to describe Jesus’ dazzling appearance is the same as that used to describe lightning. The disciples are shaken awake, shaken out of their ignorance, to see the light of Christ. In the garden of Gethsemane, the humanity, “the Man side,” of Christ is fully revealed to them. They are awakened by Jesus to see him going to his trials before the Sanhedrin and Pilate, and then to his death.
The fact that they are asleep on both occasions tells me something, a great deal, in fact, about the difficulty of really comprehending who Jesus is, who God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is—the deep Trinitarian mystery at the heart of our faith. I remember a talk we had in Seminary from an Orthodox priest. One of the things he talked about was about the iconostasis which is the screen that is put up in front of the altar in Orthodox churches.
If you have ever seen a picture of or been in an Orthodox church, you will remember that there is what looks like a solid wall covered with icons. Actually it has two doors in it, for the clergy to go in and out to the people during the Eucharist. This is the iconostasis. On certain occasions in the year, the screen is opened up for people to see through. This only happens at certain times such as Easter week.
As the Orthodox Priest was speaking, it made me think about how we, as Christians, only see rare glimpses of God. Much of the time we are either asleep, like the disciples, or experiencing hardship, rather than seeing the glory of God on the mountain top. In fact, if we were really to see God in all His glory we would be perplexed and terrified, just as Peter, James and John were. I’m absolutely sure sure based on the accounts that we have, that the experience they had was altogether uncomfortable!
So Peter, James and John are awakened from their sleep by this lightning flashing and somehow they are able to discern that Jesus is speaking to the two great figures of Judaism—Moses and Elijah. These are the two greatest Prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. They also represent very different periods in the history of Israel. In addition, these were men who had been dead and gone for a long, long time.
What this does is point to the reality of resurrection. Peter decides he needs to do something. Don’t you just love Peter? His first reaction is always to do something, NOW! I think if Peter were around today, he’d have tried shoot a video for posting online! I know I would have! Peter’s rather strange response is to want to create tents for Jesus, Elijah and Moses. All the text tells us is that ‘he didn’t know what he was saying’. Maybe he was trying to preserve what he could see—in the way we might take a photo or shoot a video now. Maybe Peter was trying to be religious, showing how he wanted to worship.
What’s interesting is that as soon as he suggests making these tents, the cloud descends with the voice of God. Remember basic Scriptural interpretation: Anytime there is a cloud in Hebrew or Christian Scriptures, it signifies the presence of God. The cloud and voice stage an intervention, just as Peter is trying to give equal importance to Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Equal importance to Moses, Elijah and Jesus.
But we know that Jesus is the very image of God, the firstborn over all creation (Col 1:15). Jesus is not equal to Moses and Elijah—or, rather they are not equal to him. He is their God. Moses represents for Jews the Law and Elijah represents the prophets. What happens on the mountain is a visual representation of what Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel: ‘do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them’ – Mt 5:17.
Peter, James and John are given a revelation of who Jesus really is. We see quite clearly that Jesus is on a level with God himself. He’s not just a good teacher, or a great leader, or a true prophet. Jesus is God incarnate. There is something fascinating, too, about the fact that the ‘transfigured’ Jesus is still recognizably Jesus.
This reminds me of the story of the road to Emmaus, where the disciples at first don’t recognize the resurrected Jesus and then, suddenly, they know it is him, in the breaking of the bread. The sacrament in which we are about to take part has this mystery—the real presence of Christ in simple bread and wine—which is both a hiding and a revealing of who God is. So, we, here in the midst of the long season After Pentecost (or After Trinity, depending on your preference in calendars) are given a glimpse of who Jesus really is, resurrected, ascended, glorified, with us in our lives and in the sacraments that we share.
We must keep this reality in our minds as we journey through this cycle of our life. So be encouraged, the resurrected Christ is with us throughout our journey of life, whether we are in darkness, or whether we are on the mountain top. He journeys with us and is the only one we should listen to.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.