St. Matthew begins his account of the Transfiguration with a calendar note. “Six days later,” he starts off. 1 This means that we need to hold onto what took place six days earlier. Remember when Jesus led his disciples up to Caesarea Philippi and asked them “Who do you say that I am?” It is there that we hear Peter’s confession “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Then Jesus speaks of those images that will accrue to Peter because of this blessed knowledge: “rock,” “keys,” “binding and loosening on earth and in heaven.”
Immediately following these ascriptions to Peter’s blessed knowledge, Jesus adds that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering, be killed, and on the third day be raised. Peter’s response is one of shock and denial. And he rebukes Jesus. But Jesus then rebukes Peter: “Get behind me, Satan.” Peter the rock has now become a “stumbling block.” In the words of a caring seminary professor who needs to correct some issues with her students’ homilies, Peter has “an opportunity for growth”!
So six days later, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John—his executive committee 2 —and leads them up a high mountain by themselves. As they ascend, the going gets tough. Smooth sandals slip on the shale path. The air gets cooler than it was back down in the valley, but it also gets thinner. The three disciples—whose previous occupations took place at sea level—rapidly get out of breath. Finally, they arrive at the summit. Before they can catch their breath, they are stunned by a breath-taking sight. Jesus is transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.
Here is the glory of the One to whom Peter was pointing—“Messiah,” “Son of God.” Now, in the midst of their journeys with Jesus, they are given a revelation of their Lord in all his resurrection glory. And this as well: Here is Jesus revealed as the triumphant Lamb of God who will appear in glory at his coming again. Handel’s music got it right. “And he shall reign forever and ever,” we sing. Now, we must admit that Hollywood with its digital effects could mimic the Transfiguration right in our multi-plex theater. Add in the amped up electronic music heard in most of the “blockbusters” and, well, it almost rivals St. Matthew’s scene there upon the
mountaintop. But let a summer thunderstorm knock out the power to the mall and the Hollywood version dissolves into pixels, the music stops, and the screen goes dark. But what Peter and James and John are seeing is the revelation of the glory of Christ that will withstand all darkness, even suffering and death on a cross. They have become the first to see Jesus in his resurrection glory.
Now, the vision becomes more complex. Appearing there with Jesus are Moses and Elijah and they are conversing with him. All of the Law and the prophets, all of Israel’s Scripture is represented by these two figures who have had mountaintop revelations of their own. They, too, have been in the bright presence of the Holy One. They, too, were transformed by that encounter with the Maker of Heaven and Earth. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, “the skin of his face shone” while Elijah “went up to heaven in a whirlwind.”
The Orthodox icon of the Transfiguration is one of the oldest of all icons. The scene is of Jesus at the center with Moses and Elijah there on the Mount. Jesus is dressed in white and his face is radiant. In fact, beams of radiance extend to his two companions. In addition to a halo, there is also an almond-shaped bright oval surrounding the Lord. The Mandorla is the uncreated, eternal light of Christ, now revealed in the midst of his earthly ministry. This Mandorla is also present in icons of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Moses is always depicted carrying a book or scroll of the Law. Elijah’s garb is quite similar to that of John the Baptist in the icons. Moses and Elijah bow before Christ and the Lord looks straight at us and blesses us. This vision is seared into the church’s memory from the time of the Apostles. We revisit it today!
It is at this point that Peter speaks up. “Lord,” he says, “it is good that we are here.”
Peter then makes his request. “If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” So, Peter’s offer to build three tents, or tabernacles, comes to Jesus.
Now when lots of preachers come to this offer, they tend to dismiss it as an attempt by the three disciples to remain on the mountaintop, and not to descend with Jesus on his Way to Jerusalem and the Cross. But for St. Matthew, something else may be going on here. Peter does not speak for James and John, but first asks, “If you wish.” That is, a much more humble request is being made. Then, Peter offers to build the three tents by himself. “I will make three tents here,” Peter
suggests. So instead of the Apostle trying to hold onto his place here on the Mount of Glory, Peter may well be expressing a genuine hospitality to Jesus and his two conversation partners. Peter’s words come with humility and he offers to provide a temporary “home” for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. At least in St. Matthew’s telling of the story, there is no evidence of Peter selfishly seeking a permanent residence on the Mountain.
However, before Peter has even finished his request, “a bight cloud cast a shadow over them.” They were overshadowed by this cloud of brilliance—“overshadowed,” connoting darkness and even judgment and this “bright cloud,” pointing to the presence of God’s radiant presence. (An oxymoronic cloud, indeed!) Then comes a voice from the cloud, a voice heard at Jesus’ baptism speaking precisely the same message: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Up on this mountaintop, the Divine voice again announces what was heard at Jesus’ baptism. First at the Jordan and now on the heights, this message: Jesus is the beloved Son of God and the Father is “well pleased.” But the Divine voice continues, “Listen to him!” Which is a bit confusing since we have not overheard the Lord’s conversation with Moses and Elijah and no words have been spoken by Jesus to the three disciples. So we will need to expand our awareness of Jesus' words in order to “listen to him.” Which takes us back to those events six days earlier when Jesus made the first prediction of his Passion and of his resurrection. And which will have us alert to Jesus’ message after he descends from the Mount.
Listening to Jesus, once more he will speak of his suffering and death and, on the third day, his resurrection. As Peter is learning, the Paschal Mystery includes both his suffering and death and his being raised from the dead in glory. Even in the midst of his suffering, the church will not stray far from his being raised. As Fr. Ronald Murphy recently emphasized, In one of the more beautiful moments of the Good Friday liturgy the crucifix is held up while the choir sings “Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One…” The irony of the Son of God dying is displayed in the contradiction of what the eyes see and what the ears hear: one sees Christ’s last moments on the cross as the choir sings to him as Holy God, holy and almighty. 3
"Listen to him,” insists the voice from the cloud. Jesus suffering and death are bound together with his resurrection and ascension into glory. Hearing this voice from the overshadowing cloud, the disciples fall to the ground and are very much afraid. There are no foxholes to jump into, no place of escape from God’s presence. They cower there on the stone face of the mountain. “But Jesus comes and touches them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” The Lord’s touch is crucial here. It emphasizes that even in glory here upon the Mount of Transfiguration, he remains “fully human.” He reaches down to touch these three disciples just as a mother would reach out and touch a beloved child who has had a nightmare and is frozen in bed with fear. “Rise, and do not be afraid,” the mother is saying through her touch. Jesus both enacts and speaks his compassion to us. Whenever we are struck down in fear, we are urged to hear these words and receive the Lord’s touch.
Able now to look up, the three disciples see no one else but Jesus. No shining cloud, no Moses and Elijah, not even Jesus’ transfigured appearance. “They saw no one else but Jesus alone.” So see them now, clattering down the mountain, following Jesus into the valley and on to Jerusalem. More questions than answers, along with a sense that something profound has happened. They join us in our own valley, holding onto the vision we all have seen. So many questions. So much uncertainty and fear. But also, with the disciples, we have the presence of our compassionate Christ who touches us through bread and wine made holy and who at the last will raise us up with these words of welcome, “Do not be afraid.”
1 The Gospel lection for Transfiguration, Year A oddly deletes Matthew’s opening temporal marker: “Six days later” (kai meth’ hēmeras hex).
2 I am indebted to Ronald Allen for this nifty phrase.
3 G. Ronald Murphy, S.J., “Pleasure and Fun in the Double Tongue—Common English,” Worship, vol. 97: July 2023, 260-61.