I’m going out on a limb here, but I don’t think we talk enough about transfiguration. There are probably good reasons for that. Still….
Consider the most famous transfiguration, recounted in Luke 9:28-36. It’s a dramatic story. Jesus goes up the mountain with his three beloved apostles: Peter, James, and John. While he is praying, suddenly “the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering. And, behold, there talked with him two men, which were Moses and Elias…” (Luke 9:28-29 KJV). Wow! How awesome! If only we’d been there….
Peter, James, and John were there. They slept through it.
Isn’t that the way it always goes? Something great happens, and we miss it.
Transfiguration can be defined as “1a: a change in form or appearance : METAMORPHOSIS
b: an exalting, glorifying, or spiritual change” (Merriam-Webster Online). The Cambridge Dictionary describes it as the act or process of someone “changing their appearance very much, especially in a spiritual way.” The Free Dictionary says it’s “A change that glorifies or exalts.”
Along with baptism, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, transfiguration is one of the five major milestones in the life of Jesus. It is the only one of the miracles in the gospels that happens to Jesus himself.
Of note is his disciple’s response. Peter wakes up as Moses and Elijah are leaving. He has a sense that he’s missed something big and offers to build a tent. He’s trying to get them to stay until he can figure out what just happened. (The Gospel writer comments that Peter doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Obviously.) A cloud appears and shuts him up. “This is my son,” the voice says.
Peter, James, and John go back down the mountain with Jesus, and don’t tell anyone about what they saw or heard. That strikes me as an incredibly human response. Sometimes when we don’t understand what’s happening we keep quiet lest we embarrass ourselves.
As incredible as this account seems to us today, theologian Frederick Buechner argues that there are transfigurations in all our lives. “Even with us something like this happens once in a while. The face of the man walking with his child in the park, of a woman baking bread….. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing.” What Buechner is writing about is not the mountaintop experience of Jesus and the disciples, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t transformative.
My encounter with transfiguration happened twenty years ago. My friend Craig was going on a mission trip. To raise money for it, his team sold “shares.” I didn’t understand why he wanted to go, but I bought a share and dismissed the whole thing. Some months later when the group returned, they wanted to report to the shareholders. I couldn’t think of a good excuse not to go, and so I went and listened.
Person after person got up to speak. They showed pictures. Each talked of being transformed by their trip to Guatemala. But it wasn’t their words that moved me. It was their body language, their facial expressions, something in their eyes. I’d known Craig for two decades by this point, long enough to recognize he’d come back changed. I wanted to know why, but was afraid to ask. Only later, after I’d traveled to Guatemala with him, did I understand. I too became transformed.
By the time of the transfiguration Peter, James, and John had been with Jesus for three years. They were tired by the climb up the hill. They fell asleep and almost missed the whole thing. That human frailty is understandable. But when they woke up, when they saw Moses and Elijah and a transfigured Jesus, when they heard a voice declaring Him God’s only son, they kept silent. Today, when we witness a transfiguration, we should not.
Originally Published: Clayjar Review, Wise & Gentle Issue
Leave a Reply