“There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
Some things happen over and over again—to every human soul, in fact—and we tell stories about them as though they were one stupendous, unrepeatable event. Anyone who has ever watched a child grow from innocence to sophistication knows what the fall and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden are all about, for example.
I’ve spent a long time pondering what universal human experience the story of the Transfiguration is trying to tell us. Here it is; see what you think.
…Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but when they were fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved–listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.
—Luke 9: 28-35
On the mountaintop, the two men who symbolize the Law and the Prophets appear, talking with Jesus about things to come, thereby validating his identity as the Messiah. Seeing the veil of heaven drawn aside and the spiritual reality behind the visible world exposed to his view, Peter begins babbling about making shelters for their rabbi and his heavenly entourage, and staying on the mountain indefinitely.
The answer he receives is unequivocal: ‘This is my Son, my Beloved—listen to him.’
It would be easy to write about people who call themselves Christians, build earthly shelters for heavenly beings, and behave as though they never heard a word of what Jesus said, but I’m not here to confess other people’s sins. What caught my attention was the phrase, ‘when they were fully awake.’ The three apostles saw the vision of the transfigured Jesus when they had shaken off sleep and become fully conscious.
It reminded me of the hymn Paul quoted to the Christians at Ephesus, ‘Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’
I have noticed that Paul, whose letters are older than the gospels, wrote not so much about Jesus’ returning as about Jesus’ being revealed. He wrote to the Thessalonians about the time ‘when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.’
In his letter to the Galatians, he refers to his vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus as a ‘revelation.’ In both cases, the original Greek was apokalypsos—literally, ‘lifting of the veil.’
This, I believe, is the mythic, universal power of the Transfiguration story.
Yes, Jesus was revealed in glory on the mountain to the three apostles. Yes, both the Law and the Prophets were shown to testify to his divinity. For us today, however, I believe the takeaway is this: Jesus will appear to us—his light shine upon us—when the veil is lifted because we are fully awake to him who is already present with us. And when that happens, the best thing we can do is to listen to what he tells us: in scripture, in the voices of the poor, the despised, the outcast, and the marginalized, the refugee and the disempowered.
As the psalmist said,
…at my vindication I shall see your face;
when I awake, I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.
[Image Credit: Latimore, Kelly. Transfiguration, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.]