Transfixed or Transfigured?
“When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen.”
March 2, 2019, Words By: Joel Van Dyke, Image By: “The Transfiguration of Jesus” by Father John Giuliani
This Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday. It is a high holy day and feast in the Eastern Orthodox Church, but the Transfiguration gets comparatively little airtime in the West. This is remarkable when we consider the pivotal point that the event plays in the Gospel narratives. It represents a dramatic shift from Jesus’ life and ministry in Galilee, to his resolute decision to “set his face towards Jerusalem.”
The Transfiguration is the answer to the tension-building question that is repeated throughout the early chapters of Matthew, Mark and Luke: “Who is this Jesus of Nazareth?”
Earlier in Luke 9 Jesus massages the tension by challenging his disciples with the disorientating question, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” Then, merely 8 days later, Jesus invites Peter, James, and John to a mountaintop prayer meeting where the conclusive answer to the haunting question is finally revealed.
The Source of Light
While in prayer, Jesus’ face begins to change and his clothes become dazzling white. Suddenly Moses and Elijah appear talking with Jesus about his pending “departure” (“exodus” in Greek). If one desires to engage a conversation about the topic of Exodus, a resurrected Moses makes for a pretty good conversation partner.
The whole scene is an invitation to recount the experience of Moses on Mount Sinai; however, there is a notable difference. While glory came down from above unto Moses, here the glory is emanating directly from Jesus. While Moses exudes a reflected light, Jesus is the source of his own light.
Light is not coming down from above, it is emanating out from within.
While the glory cloud in the Old Testament is a partial and provisional sign of the glory of God, Jesus is the full glory of God. The writer of Hebrews says it beautifully:
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being….
While Jesus is being transfigured before their eyes, the vision of the disciples is blurred as if they are looking through a glass darkly. Peter, understandably, wants to build three tabernacles for each guest, perhaps desperately trying to fit the scene before him into something he can comprehend, control, and manage – the end goal of all empty religious activity.
Muted and Blinded
As I sit with the text, I locate myself in the paralysis that is evident in the sleepy, transfixed gaze of Peter and the other disciples. The narrative concludes with the disciples “keeping silent,” and choosing to “tell no-one of the things they had seen.” They were left transfixed, stupefied by implications they could not fully comprehend, let alone act upon.
They come down from the mountaintop experience of the Transfiguration still blinded by scarcity (unable to cast out the demon of a young boy), rivalry (arguing about who was greatest among them) and the theoretical (should we stop others from the act of driving out demons who aren’t doing it right?).
Only through Resurrection
Like Peter, I am far too often transfixed on the shallow nature of what I can manage or control. Like Peter, I find it difficult to simply dwell in the mystery and the wonder of the glory of God that stands before me in the transfigured Jesus. Like Peter and the other disciples, I remain blinded by scarcity, rivalry, and theoretical propositions that hold me back from untethered acts of love towards those around me. Why?
The Transfiguration makes no sense without the experience of the Resurrection.
Like the disciples, we look through the glass darkly because full clarity does not come until we bask in the light of the resurrection. That resurrection awaits us on the other side of our Lenten journey to the cross. There the ultimate Exodus will be accomplished.
Although we squint today, our tired, transfixed eyes will be fully open and transformed on the other side of the journey that lies ahead. There alone will our visions of scarcity become visions of abundance. There alone will our dead theory evolve into loving practice. And there alone will the rags of rivalry be exchanged for the gown of peace.
What a gift to know we hold an invitation to that event, enveloped in the Shekinah glory of the One who invites.
Let that hope be the heartbeat that sustains during the long, dark Lenten journey to the cross that lies ahead.