“And he was transfigured before them.” – Mark 9:2
“I can’t explain the goings or the comings. You enter suddenly and I am nowhere again, inside the majesty.” – Rumi
Dazzling white clothes, Moses and Elijah, voices from clouds – I am guilty of having sometimes rushed past the transfiguration accounts for how inaccessible such an experience of Jesus seems to me. Perhaps it’s a story challenging to preach or teach, as it offers no tidy moral imperative, no clear implication for how to live in light of the disciples’ witness. Instead, the transfiguration account is fluent in mystery, begging us to place ourselves in the narrative and walk around inside of it – climb the mountain, see the glory, fumble out our own dumbstruck words laced with terror, and in the end, be brought back to the resurrection.
Carver’s Gap on Roan Mountain, straddling the Tennessee and North Carolina line, is for me the only mountain I am able to envision when I try to place myself in this narrative. At nearly 6,000 feet, the balds on Roan offer astounding views of surrounding Appalachian peaks – or alternately, the experience of being shrouded in cloud, haunting and breathtaking in its own way.
It’s the kind of place easier to imagine a voice from heaven or the deep seeing of another’s transformation. To try to be Peter, James, and John with Jesus for an imaginative moment means, for me, remembering fondly the intimacy of hiking with countless beloved friends and the intimate sharing of our lives with one another on the way to the top.
It’s this sort intimate self-disclosure that I see at the heart of the transfiguration. The story takes place as an episode in a series of conversations about Jesus’ identity and what being his disciple means. But for all the story’s merits as an educational event, it’s clear that what Jesus offers is also a revelation of himself in the context of friendship.
He takes the three “apart, by themselves,” indicating his act of confiding to them his glory, in contrast to the crowds and other disciples present in the surrounding text. In response to Jesus’ self-disclosure, Peter’s words – while fumbling, while reaching, while impulsively spoken – express well the emotional impact of what the three see: “It is good for us to be here. Let’s set up camp and stay awhile.” He is profoundly moved, longing to linger in the majesty of the moment.
This dazzling Jesus is the Jesus Peter wants to see, the image of the Messiah he longs to be aligned with. In chapter 8 of Mark, just prior to the transfiguration, Peter declares Jesus to be the Christ. Jesus then begins to prophesy the suffering and death of the Son of Man. Peter responds with rebuke, before Jesus in turn rebukes Peter as Satan for setting his mind on “human things”. Jesus then lays down what true discipleship will mean: self-denial, taking up the cross, following, losing life to find it.
Six days later when Jesus is transfigured before them, perhaps Peter breathes relief at this vision of glory sans suffering. But his satisfaction is deflated when Jesus orders them not to speak of what they witnessed till after he had risen from the dead. In 9:10, Mark says “so they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.”
Note, in considering the transfiguration, its tie to Jesus’ baptism, a symbol of dying and rising. In both stories, the voice from heaven declares Jesus’ belovedness and sonship, and in Mark 12, language of a beloved son is further used in Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants, indicating his death. The image of Jesus as clothed in dazzling white in the transfiguration mimics the language later used in Christian tradition to speak of baptism, as well as the image of the saints in Revelation being robed in white and the church’s tradition of dressing the newly baptized similarly.
Further, the language of transfiguration itself is worth noting. In the Greek, the word is metamorphoo, from which our English “metamorphosis” is derived, and connotes transformation. This word is used in speaking of the transfiguration in Matthew and Mark, but also appears in Paul’s letters, usually translated as “transformed” or “changed.” In Romans 12:2, we are urged to “be transfigured by the renewing of our minds.”
And, in 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul says:
And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transfigured into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
One wonders if this mirroring spoken of by Paul was in part what Jesus intended for his disciples in revealing to them his glory. It’s clear from the text that whatever else took place, Jesus himself was transfigured. But were the disciples in a sense also transfigured? In encountering Jesus’ glory, did they behold the reflected image of God within themselves?
Perhaps Peter’s willingness to pitch tents on the mountain was an honest response to glimpsing created glory in himself for the first time. In the friendship of the body of Christ, we mirror to one another the truth of our own belovedness, adoption as sons and daughters, and the glory growing in us as we move toward holiness and the fulfillment in us of God’s creative work.
The language of transformation is complicated for the American church in a culture selling transformation at every turn. Life-change is a marketable commodity. Is there perhaps value in the church reclaiming the language of transfiguration, not only as something that happens to Jesus, but as something that happens to us in our baptism, and through the lifelong process of sanctification?
What seems lost in translating metamorphoo as “transformation” in Paul, is a connection to the gospel narrative, the locating our story between the self-denying demands of discipleship and the pondering of what “this rising from the dead could mean” (9:10). In reclaiming “transfiguration,” the door is open for a renewed sense that Jesus’ transfiguration isn’t only an expression of his glory, but a way of seeing ourselves as bound up in him.
This transfiguration Sunday, may we climb the mountain with Jesus to witness the intimacy of his glory and hear the heavenly declaration of his belovedness and sonship. May we see our reflection in him, like peering into the waters of our baptisms, and discover the Spirit at work transfiguring us from glory to glory. Amen.