We often think of the transfiguration as a one-off historical event, but by doing that do we exclude the chance that others have been transfigured as they follow in the footsteps of Christ?
2Jesus took Peter, James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. He was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4There appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9As they were coming down the mountain, He ordered them to tell no-one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead, 10so they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.
Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English version), alt, used with permission.
It doesn’t make sense for this story to be anywhere other than in the second half of Christ’s ministry on earth, and certainly not before the temptations, which marked the beginning of His ministry, and which were the subject of the gospel reading on the first Sunday in Lent. Jesus chose three of the disciples in whom He felt He could trust, so, given His humanity, it could not have been at the beginning of the ministry, and there were too many other things happening close to the end of His earthly life. Why did he choose three? Why these three?
Playing favourites is always likely to result in human dissatisfaction and ill-feeling, so I find it hard to accept that Christ would engage in such activity, but the way Peter is often portrayed in the gospels and Christ’s comment that he would be the rock on which the church would be built do suggest that He had big things in mind for Peter, so it’s not unreasonable to expect him to be one of the chosen ones. In Mark’s gospel we aren’t told which James and which John were with Him on that mountain. Were these James and John sons of Zebedee, whose mother asked for them to be seated at Christ’s right and left? Matthew’s rendition of the story does say that they were brothers, but that could well have been a Matthean addition to the Marcan text he had available to him. Was John “the beloved disciple” who inspired the fourth gospel? Possibly. I don’t know the answer, and I haven’t come across any commentaries which have considered that part of the story effectively. With an event such as the transfiguration about to occur Jesus would have taken enough witnesses to make description of the hard-to-explain occurrence a little more believable. Normally two witnesses would be considered sufficient in the context, but this calls for more.
For those of us used to thinking of mountains and mountaineers, going up a high mountain would be like climbing Everest, or Mont Blanc, or Kosciuszko, but to those in biblical times climbing a high mountain represented getting closer to God, and the higher the mountain the closer you would be to God. Here we have Jesus and three disciples close to God in more ways than Peter, James and John imagined.
Matthew and Luke both describe the transfiguration as Christ’s face changing, in Matthew shining like the sun, and his clothes becoming a brilliant white. We would do well to see that transformation as an indication that Christ was doing God’s work, and we should try to emulate Jesus in that regard. Let’s not believe that such a transformation only occurred once, on that mountain: I have heard, from devout Christians in 20th and 21st century Australia, reports of similar experiences, and I’m sure they are not the only ones.
Peter, however, was blinded by the light of this vision, became fearful, and wanted to build tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah – representatives of the law and the prophets, rather than seeing the world around him lit up by the heavenly presence. If we were in Peter’s shoes and see someone transfigured, would we be scared and want to put away that experience rather than embracing it? In Anglican communion services in Australia the Two Great Commandments statement used to end with “on these two laws hang all the law and the prophets”, but it seems Moses and Elijah have lost their importance.
Jesus didn’t have to answer Peter’s request to build tents because the cloud of unknowing enveloped all of them, and God spoke the same words as were reported at His baptism – they are identical in the Greek, but translated differently – and adds that we should listen to Him. Elijah had already come and the people had rejected his message. Now it was time for the message to be heard, to be inwardly digested, and to become part of our lives. In the comfort of a relatively safe society, with freedom to practise whatever religion we desire, do we actually hear God’s word, or do we just listen to the sounds and not let them transform our comfort?
Having given these three disciples an experience of a life-time Jesus ordered them to keep quiet about what they saw and experienced until after His resurrection, though the disciples were yet to understand what that would be like. We have no such requirement. Indeed, we should be proclaiming the risen Christ as Lord for the benefit of all people. Of course, that’s not going to be easy in a community which is focussed so much on the mistreatment of young people by a very small minority of church leaders across the board. We have allowed the bad apples in the barrel to condemn all the good ones because we have failed to denounce the actions of those who undermine the Good News – some would call them false prophets – and to highlight the good work of the vast majority.
Let us all have an experience where we see the transfigured Lord, or someone in His stead, and may that drive us to spread the Good News and overcome the bad.