Transfiguration icon, Russia, 17th century
Now it came to pass, about eight days after these sayings, that He took Peter, John, and James and went up on the mountain to pray. As He prayed, the appearance of His face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening. And behold, two men talked with Him, who were Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. But Peter and those with him were heavy with sleep; and when they were fully awake, they saw His glory and the two men who stood with Him. Then it happened, as they were parting from Him, that Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: 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 fearful as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!" When the voice had ceased, Jesus was found alone. But they kept quiet, and told no one in those days any of the things they had seen.
- Luke 9:28-36
Yesterday, we read that, as Jesus was alone praying, His disciples joined Him, and He asked them, saying, "Who do the crowds say that I am?" So they answered and said, "John the Baptist, but some say Elijah; and others say that one of the old prophets has risen again." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered and said, "The Christ of God." And He strictly warned and commanded them to tell this to no one, saying, "The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day." Then He said to them all, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, of him the Son of Man will be ashamed when He comes in His own glory, and in His Father's, and of the holy angels. But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the kingdom of God."
Now it came to pass, about eight days after these sayings, that He took Peter, John, and James and went up on the mountain to pray. As He prayed, the appearance of His face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening. And behold, two men talked with Him, who were Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. But Peter and those with him were heavy with sleep; and when they were fully awake, they saw His glory and the two men who stood with Him. In the story of the Transfiguration, we begin with Peter, John, and James whom Jesus takes with Him to pray on the mountain. This is His inner circle, the ones brought with Him to Jairus' house when Jairus' daughter was at the point of death, those whose faith is strongest. We remember that Jesus has just told the disciples (in yesterday's reading) that He will suffer and be rejected and killed, and be raised the third day. Peter has just made his confession of faith that Jesus is "the Christ of God." Moses and Elijah appear, as representatives of the Law and the Prophets. The glory that appears for the disciples confirms the understanding of the presence of the kingdom of God. The text is translated that Moses and Elijah speak to Jesus of His decease which He is about to accomplish at Jerusalem. The word translated as decease in the Greek is "exodus." It refers to His death, at which He will be glorified (John 12:23). My study bible says the term reveals that Christ's Passion is a true fulfillment of the Old Testament Passover and the true exodus from enslavement into salvation. His glory also reveals that His suffering will be voluntary. What arresting soldier could have resisted it?
Then it happened, as they were parting from Him, that Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah" -- not knowing what he said. The Feast of Tabernacles was the feast of the Coming Kingdom, commemorating the time when Israel followed Moses and lived in tabernacles (or tents), temporary dwellings on their way to the Promised Land. Peter's statement may seem nonsensical, but it does make sense in the context of what he knows and understands.
While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were fearful as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!" When the voice had ceased, Jesus was found alone. But they kept quiet, and told no one in those days any of the things they had seen. Here is what is called a Theophany, the revelation of God in the form of the Trinity. The cloud overshadows them as the bright cloud of the Spirit that went before the Israelites, visible sign of God's presence (see also Numbers 11:25). The Father's voice speaks, and Jesus is identified as beloved Son. The command to "Hear Him!" even reflects on Jesus' identity as the Word (John 1:1).
The Transfiguration is a revelation of many things, a point from which we can understand many aspects of Christian faith. Some suggest that as Jesus has just revealed that He will suffer and die, and be raised on the third day, it is an affirmation for the apostles of His true identity. It is something they won't forget and will bear meaning for them after the events of the Passion, and giving more depth of understanding to the Resurrection. These men will need a strong faith to go through the events they are about to endure, and memories that will cement in place their mission as apostles. For now, the text says, they keep all of this very quiet, and told no one in those days any of the things they had seen. This is because the events that are going to occur must proceed as they will in order for all to be given the true ideas about Messiah, the Christ. The expectations of the people run very contrary to what will happen, and what sort of Kingdom this is going to be and how it will work in the world. But the Transfiguration, to my mind, also teaches us about mystery. Certainly there is revelation of Jesus' divine nature, and most importantly, of the Trinity. But the Transfiguration also gives us an image to think about, to contemplate, as we consider the work of the Kingdom in the world. The disciples -- Jesus' inner circle of Peter, James, and John -- are given an extraordinary experience and revelation. But this image must also work to help us to contemplate the presence of the Kingdom in the world. When we pray, do we enter into a place where we have a communion with God, a taste of something that permeates our world with experiences perhaps of joy, or peace, or even insight into our own dilemmas and circumstances? The image of Transfiguration -- so often shown in icons in a blue-tinged light, meaning a glory that is beyond an earthly light -- is one which feeds us our own sense of what mystery and reality exists not just "beyond" or "after" this world or this life, but really interpenetrates our lives and touches our souls and spirits. It is something good to meditate on, to understand in a contemplative way, how faith becomes not just about teachings and precepts, but is also experiential. That is, an understanding that touches the heart with things we experience like love, or insight, or confidence we wouldn't have without it, a faith in what is "right" when the world puts pressure on us to make a difficult choice. Without the Transfiguration, a sense of the holy as immanent wouldn't be so clear or secure within our faith. It's not only about the miracles and the healings, the signs of the Kingdom Jesus does. It's also about this image, in which God's light shines mingled and out-glowing even earthly light, but nevertheless shines for us -- for all of us. This is what we take with us to experience as our own faith illumines what we need, and how we need it. The mystery of the light remains, but the transfiguring power of the presence of this mystical reality works in us and those around us, even in always-surprising ways we can see and know and experience, and in the testimony of those for whom the Lord has done great things.