Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:1-9 – NRSV)
This text of Matthew has its counterparts in Mark (9:2-13) and Luke (9:28-36) as well as Peter’s Second Letter (1:16-18)
The fact that this incident is recorded in such detail by all three synoptics – plus the reference in the Second Letter of Peter – suggests it has good foundation in fact. Furthermore, the slight variations in the telling supports the probability that Peter, James and John did in fact experience an extraordinary event with Jesus, an event memorable enough to place it at the heart of the Gospels.
Just precisely what did happen, we will never know. What we have here is a highly stylized account, more a telling of the meaning of what happened rather than a reporting of fact. The context and links to tradition are brought into focus so that we can begin to see what can only be hinted at now, begin to comprehend what can only be guessed now.
Matthew’s Gospel has, as a central theme, the fulfilment of the Hebrew Scriptures in Jesus: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (5:17-18)
This story of the transfiguration thus contains many references to the Hebrew Scriptures, “portray(ing) Jesus as the Servant/Son of Man who will now be revealed to be the Son of God, superseding Moses and Elijah.” (Adrian Leske, “Matthew” in The International Bible Commentary, edited by William R Farmer, The Liturgical Press, 1998, 1305.).
“Six days later” is an allusion to Moses who was on Sinai for six days before God called to him out of the cloud (Exodus 24:16); it may also be taken as a link to the events described immediately before this in Matthew 16: The Pharisees and Sadducees come demanding a sign (16:1-4), Peter’s declaration that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16:16) followed by Jesus’ prophecy of his death and resurrection (16:21-23) and the blunt statement that “the cross” is a part of the disciple’s life (16:24-27).
The disciple must learn to hold in tension life and death, light and darkness, glory and tragedy, the resurrection and the cross. Jesus’ Passover is the key to it all. The transfiguration is but a hint of the victory of the cross that will eventually be revealed. T S Eliot’s “Dry Salvages” expands this theme:
“The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is
The brilliance in the face and clothing of Jesus recalls Isaiah 60:1-3 & 19-20: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. …. The sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. Your sun shall no more go down, or your moon withdraw itself; for the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended.”
Moses too had reflected the brilliance of God at Mt Sinai (Exodus 34:29-35): “Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.”
Moses and Elijah had both come into the presence of God on Mount Sinai and they were together regarded as the great religious leaders of Israel (see Malachi 4:4-6).
Peter – “I will make three dwellings here” – evokes the feast of Booths, symbols of celebration and rejoicing before God (see Deuteronomy 16:13-15). In post-exilic times the feast of Booths became more focused on the restoration of the kingdom (see Isaiah 62:8-12 and Zechariah 14:16-21).
The bright cloud suggests the presence of God guiding the people through the wilderness (Exodus 13:21-22): “The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.” And again in Exodus 24:15-17: “Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.”
The cloud and the light are together signs of the promised kingdom (Isaiah 4:5-6): “Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over its places of assembly a cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night. Indeed over all the glory there will be a canopy. It will serve as a pavilion, a shade by day from the heat, and a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.”
And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white: In her rather whimsical 1981 novel, Household Saints, Francine Prose has one of the characters make an observation that seems strange at first but, on reflection, we can see that it holds a very practical insight into human experience: “Maybe the burning bush was burning all the time and Moses didn’t notice. Maybe the miracle is when you stop and pay attention.” (Francine Prose. Household Saints, St. Martin’s Press, 1981, 220). Flannery O’Connor suggests something similar when she writes: “But there is a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once.” (Flannery O’Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” in Mystery and Manners, Occasional Prose, selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993/1969, 77.)
Reality is multi-layered, it is always and everywhere inexhaustibly intelligible; ultimately, life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved; “paying attention” and accepting the need “of having to stare” is necessary if our lives – and the lives of those we love – are not to pass us by; being as distinct from mere seeming demands attention.
We can understand the transfiguration as being one of the moments when the three disciples pay attention, they stop and take time to stare; it is an “Aha!” moment; it is an in-breaking of reality, reality that has always been there but unseen and therefore unrecognized – more a matter, therefore, of what is happening within them than in Jesus or in the world around them; they “see” Jesus as if for the first time and they are amazed; they “see” who he really is – the truth of his being the Messiah shines before them! The reality of Jesus actually has not changed, the reality of the disciples has changed – irretrievably. Like St Paul, they have been “taken hold of” by the Anointed One (see Philippians 3:12).
This raises the central issue of a never-ending attentiveness and openness to Christ everywhere in all things, and therefore ongoing conversion. Disposing ourselves to ongoing conversion is one of the fundamental values of worship, liturgy, sacred art, religious symbols, reflective reading of the Sacred Scriptures, rituals, observance of anniversaries and simply giving ourselves time to reflect – they all help us to pay attention, to stop for a moment and stare and thus be overtaken, gripped, see and know at greater depths, what we already know in a limited way or perhaps do not yet see or know yet. This applies to all our relationships – with God, ourselves, other people (especially those close to us) and the world of events and things.
Walker Percy’s fictional character, Will Barrett – a very successful businessman now retired – offers a good contemporary – if quirky – angle on this business of paying attention and staring: “How did it happen that now for the first time in his life he could see everything so clearly? Something had given him leave to live in the present. Not once in his entire life had he allowed himself to come to rest in the quiet center of himself but had forever cast himself forward from some dark past he could not remember to a future which did not exist. Not once had he ever been present for his life. So his life had passed like a dream. Is it possible for people to miss their lives in the same way that one misses a plane? And how is it that death, the nearness of death, can restore a missed life? Why is it that without death one misses his life?” (Walker Percy, The Second Coming, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980, 123f.)
Where, or perhaps more precisely, in whom, is the transfiguration?
Under the influences of family, friends, schooling, our own fears, selfishness and even silliness, we are all prone to accumulate or even build, a thicket of unreality around ourselves. “Being” is replaced with “seeming”. A “false self” supplants the “true self”. We become blind to what matters. If we are fortunate, this ego project breaks down. Then, as the late Leonard Cohen sang, we see that “there is a crack in everything …. that’s how the light gets in”.
When “the light gets in” we see as we have not seen before and we see what we have not seen before. And we are transfigured!
Is it possible that you still have much to discover about yourself that is unbelievably beautiful? Do you, for example, see the image of God there? Let the response to the question come from your stomach not your head. Your head is more than likely under the influence of that thicket of unreality that will not let the light in. There is no transfiguration that way. The truth is that you are made in the image and likens of God. Our fulfilment comes when the truth takes hold of your consciousness and we see.
The three disciples were bowled over when they glimpsed the truth of Jesus: “They fell to the ground and were overcome by fear”. The next part of the account is powerful in its simplicity and gentleness: “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid’.” Isn’t it striking that the wonder and beauty of Jesus, which they had just seen for the first time, evokes fear? Is it possible that – as T S Eliot says – we “cannot stand very much reality”? And because we cannot stand it we avoid it? In fact – and this is where it gets particularly sad – we fabricate a substitute, a pseudo-reality, we assign ourselves and others manufactured “identities”? As if the original is not good enough . . .
It is reasonable to believe that Peter, James and John looked differently at Jesus, themselves and the world, as they came down from the mountain. Their lives were transfigured. They would never be the same again.
Is it possible that you still have much to discover about the people in your life, to see them differently? They too are made in the image and likeness of God – even the most unlikeable of them. Are you giving yourself a chance to be transfigured? “Maybe the miracle is when you stop and pay attention”.