The Transfiguration by Theophanes the Great
Scripture tells us that Jesus took Peter, James and John up to the mountain to pray. Much like in the Garden of Gethsemane, we find that while Jesus prays, his disciples fall asleep. What occurs next is beyond miraculous because it reveals how the Transcendent became a man (the Infinite in finite form) but was about to reveal how close the kingdom of God really was. Finite world intersecting with the infinite one. While Christ prayed, all three of the gospel accounts, state that his appearance of his face altered and he became as "light." Matthew would write that "his face did shine like the sun." In Greek, the word for transfiguration is metamorphoo which means "to transform" and is where we get our word metamorphosis.
Further, the gospel writers inform us that two men began to talk with Jesus: Moses and Elijah.
Why Moses and Elijah?
Both men had encounters with God on a mountain (Exodus 19 and 1st Kings 19). During both encounters, neither man could see the face of the Creator. But now, here they stood, looking into the face of Christ, who created all things. The face of God in the face of man. Astounding.
Both men symbolized the Law and the Prophets in Judaism, but now they stood before what was greater than Law: Love. Love incarnate. Love in the flesh. Love the higher law. "I have come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it."
And what were they discussing?
The departure of Jesus. Just as he had spoken of his death before coming up to the mountain to pray, Christ speaks of his, and the word used in the Greek was the same one used for "exodus." As Christ stands with Moses, who led the exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt, he is now telling of a new exodus, of a new way that God is going to free and save his people: the cross. In the transfiguration, we are getting a glimpse of what is to come: crucifixion and resurrection. Love is revealing its plan of atonement (of making at one with), which he would soon accomplish in Jerusalem. By calling it an "exodus," Christ is beginning the connection to Passover, which he would transform and make new through his offering himself as the broken bread and spilled wine. Just as Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt after Passover, even more so would Christ. A new and greater Exodus
It's at this point that our thick-as-brick disciples awaken to see the "glory" of the Lord, as well as the two men talking with him. The veil was lifted in that moment and these three common men began to see how things really were. They saw that the line between heaven and earth was a thin one at best.
In his book Simply Jesus, N. T. Wright says of the transfiguration of Jesus:
What the story of Jesus on the mountain demonstrates, for those with eyes to see or ears to hear, is that, just as Jesus seems to be the place where God's world and ours meet, where God's time and ours meet, so he is also the place where, so to speak, God's matter - God's new creation - intersects with ours. As with everything else in the gospel narrative, the moment is extraordinary, but soon over. It forms part of a new set of signposts, Jesus-shaped signposts, indicating what is to come: a whole new creation, starting with Jesus himself as the seed that is sown in the earth and then rises to become the beginning of the new world.
Three of disciples were seeing the truth of "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the earth is full of his glory" (Isaiah 6:3). Is it any wonder then that Peter wants to stay here, in this moment where he is witnessing the kingdom that all of Israel has been waiting for? He sees Jesus as the promised messiah. And, Peter being Peter, took it upon himself to suggest, "Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah." He wants to remain in the glory, in the heights where God and humanity are meeting in absolute splendor. Who wouldn't want to stay there? Why would any of them want to leave this mountain when the next one to come will be that of the cross?
Mark writes that the three disciples were terrified and that Peter said all of that because he didn't know what to say. And who would? When we begin to truly see the awe and wonder that is the holiness of God, how can we think of mere words to speak in that moment? Should we not simply fall to our knees in worship?
As C. S. Lewis wrote:
"The transfiguration, then, symbolizes the life to come and thus the goal of ascetic pursuit. It reminds the believer that the vision of God unfolds amidst the splendor of holiness while also pointing toward the way in which the final movement to ecstatic wonder is always grace-filled and joy-laden. It is the sudden burst of divine light as when Helios peaks over the horizon casting his rays on all creation so that the world glows in the gold haze of dawn, translucent and transformed."
In all three accounts, no sooner has Peter spoken when they are all overshadowed or encompassed by a great cloud. Now they are about to experience Yahweh. A voice from the cloud informs them, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." Just as God spoke as Jesus was being baptized, before he entered the desert for forty days of fasting and temptation, so, too, does the Father now affirm the Son and his mission before he undertakes the path that leads to the cross. Father speaks what the Son again will need to hear. All sons and daughters need this from their own earthly fathers.
Now, upon hearing the words coming from the cloud, the disciples fall on their faces in terror. The next action once more reveals the compassion of Christ, who gently touches them, saying, "Rise up and have no fear." Isn't that why Jesus had these three there on the mountain with him?
I love how Matthew writes, "And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus." It immediately drew to my mind the beginning of Psalm 121, "I will lift up my eyes unto the hills, from whence comes my help." They are lifting up their eyes to where their help will come from at all times: Christ.
This moment the transfiguration, was a glimpse of the new creation that Christ was promising.
These men saw the glory of the Lord before his suffering and then his ultimate glory: his resurrected body and his ascension. In this moment, Jesus was revealing them the Eternal Truth of who he was, though he warned them, "Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead."
Luke's account end with, "And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen."
Can you imagine being entrusted to keep that profound and great a secret? Especially if you were a loud mouth like Peter? Were the three disciples who went with Jesus tempted to after they came down from the mountain and came upon the others? Surely Peter, James and John gave each other knowing looks or whispered among themselves at times. "What are you three whispering about over there?" Luke might inquire. Like guilty children, they would reply, "Nothing."
I wonder if I could have kept it.
Imagine being the first person ever to see the Grand Canyon or to stand atop Mount Everest or to go into space. Now imagine not being able to speak about it to anyone - not family or friends or even strangers. No one. Now magnify those experiences to encountering the glory of God.
How would one even begin to find the right words to describe what one had seen?
There would be none accurate enough. They would all fall desperately short. The best we can ever do to describe the Mystery or the Ineffable is through metaphor. There are no words to fully comprehend the Word, which is the beginning and end of all things.
Thankfully, I don't have to be silent about the transfiguration Christ has caused in my own spiritual life. His transfiguration led to the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension that caused my own transformation from life to death, darkness to light. It was in him and through him and by him, as Paul writes in the book of Romans.
Christ's transfiguration causes our transformation because we begin to see, for the first time, his true glory. His transfiguration should lead to our adoration. Worship should always be our response to Jesus.
The Greek word for Christ's transfiguration is the same one the Apostle Paul used to describe our own in Romans 12:2.
As I read this passage in Luke, I found myself asking, "How can we not be changed when we, like those three disciples, come into contact with the Divine Mystery for ourselves?"