In the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John saw Jesus a little more for who he is – as we say in the Creed: “God from God, Light from Light.” The letter to Peter’s church and the Gospel of Luke both describe what the disciples saw, because it is important for us as the church, as Christ’s Body, to understand what it shows about who Jesus is – and who we are becoming.
Imagine the top of that mountain wrapped in the deep indigo of night. Notice the four men climbing slowly up. At the top, watch three of them sit down and lean on their hands, but notice that Jesus begins to pray.
He likes to go away sometimes, to pray. Sometimes you have to. Life is so noisy and busy, it’s hard to hear what God might be saying. Getting away from extraneous noise and activity helps focus your attention – at least it can. If your life is too full of constant noise and activity without a regular habit of rest, you might fall asleep anytime you get still enough to try and listen. Peter, James, and John felt like that the night Jesus took them up the mountain – they were weighed down with sleep. But they were trying to stay awake, and it was a good thing they did.
While Jesus was praying, Peter, James, and John looked up and suddenly saw a change coming over their teacher – or maybe it would be more accurate to say the change was coming out from him. Light began to radiate from his face and from his whole body. His face, his skin, even his clothes were shining – like the light of a welding torch – like lightning. They could hardly look at him.
The next thing they noticed was that Moses and Elijah were there, talking with Jesus. Peter, James, and John were totally awake at that point, their eyes fixed on the three figures.
The disciples all knew the stories about Moses and Elijah and how they interacted with God. Peter knew the story of Moses going up on Mt. Sinai to get the law and talking face to face with God as with a friend. John remembered that after Moses came down the mountain from talking to God, the stories all said the skin of his face was shining. He even had to wear a veil because people were freaked out by his shining face.
James knew the stories about Elijah, the great prophet who at the end of his life didn’t die but was swept up into a chariot of fire and carried away by God.
They all knew the stories, but now the stories were standing in front of them talking to each other: Moses with his shining face, Elijah looking like fire, and in the middle of them, their own teacher, Jesus, transformed into a human lightning flash. Staring, the disciples started to listen, and they heard Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus about his departure. They remembered Jesus had talked the week before about dying and being raised. Here he was talking about it again, saying that it was all about to happen in Jerusalem. What was going on?
Just as the disciples had started to take in what they were seeing, the conversation was wrapping up; Moses and Elijah were turning to leave. Peter didn’t know what to do; he didn’t want this amazing situation to end, since it seemed like it just started. He blurts out something like, “Wait! Don’t go.” He tells Jesus that it’s good for them to all be there, and he offers to build him, Moses, and Elijah each a little hut so they can all stay. It really wasn’t the right thing to say, but he didn’t know what he was saying.
It didn’t matter, though. While Peter was still talking, a cloud started coming down onto the mountain, and the three disciples all froze in fear.
Here was another part of the stories they’d all heard before: the presence of God himself guiding Moses and the Israelites through the wilderness in a pillar of fire and a pillar of smoke, the presence of God descending on Mt. Sinai in a cloud that made the whole mountain shake and smoke as Moses went up to receive the law, and all those descriptions of God that talk about his presence in terms of raw power – like a super storm. Psalm 18 says, “From the brightness of his presence through the clouds burst hailstones and coals of fire.” The disciples had heard all this in the scriptures, and there they were on the top of a mountain, with Moses, Elijah, and their teacher – who Peter himself had identified as the Messiah of God – shining like human stars, and the presence of God was descending over them in a cloud. Luke’s Gospel says, “They were terrified as they entered the cloud.” Anyone who’s lived through a tornado, hurricane, earthquake, or natural disaster of that kind can testify to the terror of being in the presence of such natural power, much less supernatural power.
God’s incredible power, though, is surpassed by the mercy he shows in reaching out to us in a way we can understand. God speaks to the disciples out of the cloud in words they can recognize: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” The cloud, though frightening to the disciples, veils God’s glory to a point that they can bear it – but this veil also reveals enough for them to recognize God’s presence for what it is. A veil partly obscures and partly reveals what’s behind it. Sometimes a veil protects the one who wears it from others’ eyes, and sometimes it protects the eyes of the ones who are looking. Moses’ veil was to protect the other Israelites, who were afraid to come near him when his skin was shining in such an alarming way. When God wanted us not to be afraid to come near him, he veiled himself in our humanity. As we sing in that wonderful Christmas hymn, “Veiled in flesh the God-head see; hail the incarnate Deity.” Jesus is Emmanuel – God with us.
Jesus’ Transfiguration revealed his identity as both God’s Son and the Son of Mary – human and divine, connecting us in our humanity to God in his glory. The Transfiguration, as God’s glory shone out of Jesus, shows the truth of who Jesus is, inside and out, and it unveils an alarmingly beautiful promise of who we are becoming as Christ transforms us. Consider this when receiving communion. As you receive Christ’s body, his body becomes part of your body and is transforming you from the inside out, increasing your capacity to both hold and reveal God’s glory.
Even though God loves us, and even when we believe God loves us, we can still be afraid of God, imagining his great power. But Jesus reveals to us that, even in his power, God is making himself small enough that we can receive him.
It’s like the way a wise adult will sometimes stoop down to talk to small children, eye to eye, knowing that, from the children’s perspective, it can be frightening to see such a huge person towering over them and booming down big words they can’t understand. Jesus is God, stooping down to where we are so we can see him eye to eye. But he is also still God, and at times, the veil between us is pulled aside, and we may glimpse some of his glory – “Light from Light, true God from true God.”