There may not be a more misunderstood event in the earthly life of Jesus than the Transfiguration. Not that we really understand most of the events of Jesus’ life, but the Transfiguration is an event that we can kinda almost understand, yet through the years we have botched it so badly that almost everyone, priests and pastors included, get it wrong. Getting it right does matter, yet I do love the fact that lots of people take a shot at understanding it, even if they get it wrong, and I love the fact that kids especially dig the story. The Gospel is wrapped up in the event of the Transfiguration, it’s one half-hour in the life of Jesus that tells us almost everything we need to know.
Part of the problem we have with the Transfiguration has to do with the words we use to describe what happened. “The Greek word used in Matthew 17 is the word from which we derive the English word “metamorphosis” and that word likewise conjures up caterpillars turning into butterflies or a Franz Kafka character waking up one day only to discover he had turned into a giant beetle.” From that linguistic problem we get most of our Transfiguration problems; we thing somehow that Jesus was changed, morphed, made to be something He wasn’t already, up on that mountaintop. “We don’t want to say (do we?) that Jesus changed from one kind of being into a completely different type. For the better part of two millennia now the church has struggled to hold in tension the idea that Jesus was one person with two natures (fully human and fully divine) and that those two natures co-existed in Jesus without confusion, without mixture, without one altering the other, and so on (cf. The Athanasian Creed for an exceedingly thorough drubbing on this subject). So we can’t theologically countenance the idea that Jesus could toggle between being either human or divine, as though he had not been both at the same time all along.”
Another problem we have with the understanding the Transfiguration is the whole “glowing Jesus” thing. St. Matthew tells us that when Jesus was transfigured, “His face shone like the sun, and His garments became white as light.” There are a couple of other instances of shining face syndrome in the Scriptures, the most famous one found in the book of Exodus. After he received the two new tablets for the Ten Commandments, Moses came down off the mountaintop and his face was radiant, his face glowed like he had been in the sun way too long, so much so that his fellow Israelites were afraid to come near him. Moses’ face was shining because he had been in the presence of just a sliver of the glory of God, so Moses’ glow was just reflected glory; he was like the Moon to God’s Sun. But Jesus, His glow was just that, His glow, His glory shining out into the darkness; the Light of the world He was and is, the Light that enlightens the Gentiles and glorifies His chosen. If you can’t picture anyone shining with the Light of the Lord, count me with you; all the religious art the world has produced has done nothing to illustrate the glory that escaped from Christ that day.
Having said that we can’t even imagine that glory, just imagine what it must have been like to be Peter or James or John that day on the mountaintop. The Transfiguration was a mountaintop experience to top all mountaintop experiences, and we can sympathize with their unwillingness to come down off the mountain. Struck by the sight of the Lord in His glory, struck by the sight of Moses and Elijah with Him, it was Peter who said to Jesus, “Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Who could blame those disciples for making that play: Hey, there’s the Son of God hanging out with two of the most important people who ever lived, let’s see if we can hang with them for a while. I’ll set up some tents; James, you get a fire going, and John, see if you can rustle up some Chex Mix.
But it wasn’t to be. The Gospel couldn’t wait for a campout. The Father called down to the disciples, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.” You’ve seen His glory, now listen to His voice. When they heard Jesus’ voice, they listened to Him say “Rise, and have no fear.” Rise, and have no fear. We’re heading down this mountain, Jesus told them, straight toward Jerusalem, straight toward things that any rational man would fear, but you, He said, must rise, you must follow, you must die along with me so that you may live along with me. The Gospel couldn’t wait, so down the mountain they went.
We don’t all have mountaintop experiences, but most of us come close. The closeness to God we feel at prayer or at Mass or singing a favorite hymn, we don’t want to lose that feeling, we don’t want that closeness to go away. But in three days I will be smudging the sign of the Cross on your foreheads. So we too must come off the mountaintop; we too must follow Jesus to our own Jerusalem, into that dark world that needs a glimpse of the Light; we too must rise and have no fear as we follow the way of the Cross, so that in dying with Jesus we too might live with Him. We must, because the Gospel can’t wait.