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)
Matthew is dependent on Mark 9:2-8. See also Luke 9:28-36. Peter also refers to this event – see 2 Peter 1:16-18.
Peter, James and John: These three seem to form an inner circle. Jesus takes the three with him when he is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:37); they were also among the first disciples whom Jesus called (Matthew 4:18–22). “This is the only place where Matthew links Peter, James, and John, but the other Gospels make it clear that the three formed something of a unit and that they were especially close to Jesus. In the Greek they are linked by a single definite article; Matthew regards them as in some sense a unity.” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, W.B. Eerdmans, 1992, 438.)
a high mountain: Theophanies usually occur on mountains. Sinai is perhaps the most significant such mountain in the tradition. Jesus has given the Beatitudes on the mountain (Matthew 5:1). After the resurrection the disciples gather at the mountain where Jesus had directed them (Matthew 28:16).
transfigured: “There on the mountaintop Jesus was transfigured. There is a variety of translations; for example, GNB reads ‘a change came over Jesus’, and Cassirer, he ‘was transformed’. I have retained the conventional and somewhat obscure word transfigured because in fact we do not know exactly what happened, and this word at least brings before us the truth that Jesus underwent a unique transformation before the disciples. Matthew selects two features of this change, the first being that Jesus’ face shone like the sun. This is a detail we owe to Matthew; Mark says nothing about Jesus’ face, and Luke tells us that while Jesus was praying the appearance of his face ‘became other’ but he does not tell us in what way it was ‘other’; only Matthew speaks of it as shining. He goes on to say that Jesus’ clothing became white as the light. The shining of the face indicates unusual radiance. It is perhaps curious that his clothing became white as the light, for we do not normally regard light as being white (though we can use the expression ‘white light’). The meaning appears to be that even Jesus’ clothing became splendid in appearance. J. Behm understands this as the ‘transformation from an earthly form into a supraterrestrial’, and he explains further, ‘Before the eyes of His most intimate disciples the human appearance of Jesus was for a moment changed into that of a heavenly being in the transfigured world’.” (Leon Morris, op cit, 438-439.)
Moses and Elijah: There was a tradition among the Jews that, at the end of time, the great figures of Jewish history would re-appear. Moses is the great lawgiver, Elijah is the great prophet. This is the “end time” and Jesus stands at the centre of it: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
Peter is gob smacked! In this state of stupefaction he makes an absurd suggestion: “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’.” We are reminded of the theophany involving Isaiah: “The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’” (Isaiah 6:4-5) This lends a particular tenderness to Jesus’ response: “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid’.”
“Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead”: As the little group is “coming down the mountain” – and that is a highly symbolic note in the drama being described here – Jesus speaks of this event as part of the total saving event of his life, death and resurrection. In particular, they will remember this moment of glory when he rises from the dead.
“Reality TV” – is it that real? – is, in effect, saying to us: “If your experience of life is not spectacular, incredibly dramatic or extreme, then you can live vicariously through these folk on the screen.” Only those who are utterly bored with reality can be satisfied by such contrivances. Their upshot is a trivialised existence and a banality that is unbearably sad.
Why does this happen? Why do people find the trivial and the banal so attractive?
Matthew’s account of the transfiguration reminds us beautifully of what lies beneath the surface of reality, if only we have the eyes to see it. Reality is a sacrament! William Blake reminds us of this in those lines from ‘Auguries of Innocence’:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
This is in-sight. The poets and the mystics get it. Why don’t the rest of us get it? Perhaps Jesus’ words in Matthew 13:14 apply: “They look without seeing”?
When the special moment of awakening and enlightenment has passed, and the three disciples are literally bowled over, Jesus restores them to the ordinariness of their existence: “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.” Did they ever look at Jesus in quite the same way again? Did they ever look at anyone or anything in quite the same way again? One special moment of in-sight can lead to a lifetime of in-sight.
Their experience of in-sight was surely an awakening and enlightenment. It is spoken of in different ways in different religious traditions. A story from the Zen tradition illustrates this:
“A knight in medieval Japan deserted his liege lord after long inner struggles, for such an action was inconceivable according to the code of knighthood. He did it because he felt an overwhelming vocation for the Zen life. Having spent some twelve years in one of the mountain monasteries, he set out on pilgrimage. Before long he encountered a knight on horseback who recognized him and made to strike him down but then decided against it as he was unwilling to sully his sword. So he just spat in the monk’s face as he rode by. In the act of wiping away the spittle, the monk realized in a flash what in former days his reaction would have been to such an insult. Deeply moved, he turned round towards the mountain area where he had done his training, bowed, and composed a poem:
The mountain is the mountain
And the Way is the same as of old.
Verily what has changed
Is my own heart.
(Irmgard Schloegl, The Wisdom of the Zen Masters, A New Directions Book, 1975, 18-19.)