Six days before, Jesus had led the disciples to Caesarea Philippi where Simon Peter made his confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Now, Jesus takes the “executive committee” of the Twelve—Peter, James, and John—and leads them up a high mountain. The three trudge upward following Jesus, the sound of their sandals crunching on the gravel and shale path. As they ascend, the three sea-level fishermen begin to get out of breath in the thinning and cooling air. (Do they request a time out from their ascent with Jesus, we wonder?) Finally, Jesus and the three arrive at the summit. The view is fantastic up here, but immediately they are startled by a most astounding sight. Jesus is transfigured before them.
Jesus’ face “shone like the sun;” his clothes becoming “white as light.” This metamorphosis of the Lord has all the markings of a “Last Day” event. Apocalyptic white and the overwhelming glory of Divine light. In these twenty-first centuries days, technology can give us a digital facsimile of such bright light—like in Harry Potter, the Marvel films, and lots of others. But none of these match the glory of the Transfigured Christ upon the mountain peak. And all of these digital versions are crammed full of violence and the forces of evil. But none of that is part of this vision seen by the three disciples. (Perhaps we could begin with much more modest analogies and then add, “But how much more!”) Haven’t we seen a radiance on the faces of a couple who, after making solemn vows and giving and receiving of rings, are proclaimed husband and wife “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”? But then we are quick to add, “But how much more, there on the mountain peak!” We are praying for our catechumens and look forward with hope and joy to their baptisms at the Easter Vigil. They will be garbed in white robes, our new Christians. And here, too, we ask, “How much more?” is the brilliance of the Lord’s clothing becoming “white as light.” Perhaps it is best to invite the faithful of the 15 th century to sing of the mystery of it all:
O wondrous type! O vision fair
Of glory that the Church may share,
Which Christ upon the mountain shows,
where brighter than the sun He glows!
Jesus is transfigured. Not until the resurrection will human eyes have such a vision. Yet St. Matthew invites us into this vision along with Peter and James and John.
However, with the three, we now see Moses and Elijah conversing with Jesus. All of the Law and the Prophets represented in this conversation with Jesus. In the icon of the Transfiguration in the St. John’s Bible, Jesus remains transfigured, his face shining with glory. He is wrapped in clothing studded with dazzling white crosses, hundreds of them. To one side stands Moses, holding the tablets of the Law while Elijah stands to the other side. They are all in deep conversation. Written under the three are the words, “This is my Son, the beloved.” (1) Jesus
In the face of this awe-filled vision, Peter blurts out his own contribution to the
conversation of Moses and Elijah with Jesus. “Lord, it is good that we are here.” Peter then continues by describing his project—three tents (or tabernacles), “one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Perhaps this is Peter’s further attempt to keep Jesus enwrapped in glory rather than to be speaking of his cross. Six days ago, Jesus called him “Satan” for insisting that this must never be. If it is all glory for Jesus, Peter’s logic leads us to styles of worship that are all “celebration” and a seeking after “prosperity.” “Lord,” Peter blurts out, “it is good that we are here.”
But, while he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them. This changes
everything. Even when earthly clouds overshadow us, there can be a kind of transfiguration. Visit the Great Smoky Mountains and drive up the summit of the range. There is a spiral concrete overlook and the view is magnificent. But now and then a cloud slides up the mountainside and envelopes you. All of a sudden you are in the shadow of the cloud and fog obscures sight. Peoples’ voices become muffled and a silence descends. You become isolated and alone. Now add what Peter and James and John encountered up there—a cloud thick with the presence of God and then, a voice. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” That voice was heard by John the Baptist and the others seeking baptism at the Jordan when Jesus came up out of the water. At the Lord’s baptism, he saw the Spirit of God coming down upon him like a dove and coming upon him. And once again, the baptismal implications are clear as crystal in spite of the cloud. Go down into the waters of your baptism, receive the power of the Spirit, and come up as children of God. At the Jordan, on the mountain, and at our baptism, these words continue to echo: “This is my beloved Son.” But now, on the mountain, the voice continues, “Listen to him.” The command is emphatic, leaving no room for other “gospels.”
When Jesus speaks of forgiving others, “Listen to him.”
When Jesus speaks of loving our enemies, “Listen to him.”
When Jesus speaks about setting aside anxiety about tomorrow, “Listen to him.”
When Jesus tells us to hear his words and act on them, having a strong foundation for our lives, we listen to him!
The voice from the cloud silences all our resistance to the way of Jesus. We go down into the waters of our baptism, we receive the Holy Spirit, and we arise to serve our risen Lord. “Listen to him” the voice speaks out of the cloud.
When the disciples hear this, they fall down, flat on their faces. Filled with fear, they try to hide from the Holy One and this Voice. But they are terribly exposed on this mountain top and there is no refuge from God up here. Matthew will tell of the guards placed at Jesus tomb who fell down and trembled upon the appearance of the angel dazzling white like lightening, sitting on the tomb stone that had rolled away. But up on this Mount of Transfiguration, no soldiers and no violence. Now, Jesus comes over to the prone disciples and he touches them. Something like when a child awakens in the night as a thunderstorm rages outside. The little one cries out and mother hurries to the bedside and touches the child. “It is alright, my love. I am here.” No more fear that night. Then Jesus adds, “Rise, do not be afraid.” The word, “rise,” is the same one that angel will use is proclaiming Jesus resurrection to those fearful women on Easter morning. “He is not here for he has been raised.” Whenever we encounter the presence of Christ, in Word and Sacrament, in our service to the world, in the most troubled time of our life, in the hour of our death, Jesus continues to speak to us, “Rise, do not be afraid.
Following Jesus, the disciples stumble back down the mountain. Along the way, they are instructed by the Lord to tell no one about the vision until the Son of Man is raised from the dead. But the disciples do tell others about the vision after Jesus has been raised from the dead.
We are assembled this (evening/morning) as the baptized and as catechumens because they did tell others about the vision. They did hear the commission to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, while teaching them all these things about Jesus. So now, it is our turn, walking down from this mount of Transfiguration. After being fed by Christ’s body and blood, we go out into all the world.
1 The St. John Bible, Virtual Tour, accessed 02/24/2023, https://library.nd.edu.au/sjbtour/transfiguration.
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