Transfiguration Sunday stands as the culmination of the season after Epiphany. We began with the light of the star that directed the magi to the child Jesus. We followed Jesus to the temple for his dedication and witnessed the early stages of his ministry, including his baptism by John. Now, the light of this season brings us to the mountain of Transfiguration.
Because of this occasion, the lectionary passages for this week play on one another, at some times subtly echoing each other and at other times directly referring to one another. For example, Moses’ face is glowing or shining when he returns from talking with God. The psalmist exhorts us to “worship at [God’s] holy mountain” (Psalm 99:9), and Paul challenges us to proceed into the world with “unveiled faces” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Moreover, the imagery in these texts is fertile, offering us the imaginative resources not only to see Christ transfigured, but to encounter God’s creation in a transfigured manner as well.
In the gospel lesson, Luke follows Matthew and Mark in describing Jesus’ meeting with Moses and Elijah, symbolizing the law and the prophets, respectively. Only Luke, however, tells us that the three of them are discussing Jesus’ “departure” (Luke 9:31). This word, which could be literally translated as “exodus”, hints at more than Jesus’ coming itinerary. Indeed, the deliverance of Israel flashes in the background and is linked to Jesus’ final destination of Jerusalem, where he will suffer and die. This is an appropriate place to be, then, on the Sunday that precedes Ash Wednesday and the start of the journey of Lent.
When we read these passages together, a comparison between Moses and Jesus comes to the surface. We are reminded that the shiny appearance of Moses’ face (and by extension, Elijah’s on the mountain of transfiguration) is a reflection of God’s full glory. By contrast, Jesus’ whole self becomes “dazzling white” (Luke 9:29), becoming the source of that glory and not its mere reflection. Moses went up the mountain to meet God, while Luke tells us that Jesus was already praying on the mountain when this theophanic event occurred. Finally, Moses descends from the mountain with commandments from God (Exodus 34:29, 32), but Jesus descends the mountain after the voice from the cloud instructs the disciples to “listen to him!” (Luke 9:35). In short, he is the commandment of God.
Without a doubt, this theophany serves to identify Jesus as God. As the psalmist states, “let the peoples tremble” (Psalm 99:1), and we see this trembling in Peter, James, and John and in the Israelites who met Moses after he came down from the mountain. Paul writes, however, that there is a crucial difference between these two encounters. For the people of Israel, with their hardened minds, the veil not only kept them from seeing the full glory reflected on Moses’ face; it also prevented them receiving the fullness of God’s message through Moses because the veil kept them from perceiving the fading of the reflected glory (2 Corinthians 3:13). According to Paul, this veil must be removed, but this is only possible by turning to the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:16). By being unveiled through Christ, we are “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
There is one more thing related to this theophanic imagery: it should not lead us to set Christ’s divinity over against his humanity. Sometimes sermons and commentaries will describe Christ’s appearance at the Transfiguration as the former breaking out of the latter, as though his humanity obscures and even eclipses the divine. At its extreme, such a claim would set Jesus’ two natures against one another and threaten to divide him into two persons, though even more modest versions of this claim can offer a rather pessimistic view of human nature.
To be sure, it is not simply a commandment that descends from the mountain, but God in Godself. Nonetheless, God is incarnated in Jesus, which also transforms how we might view all things creaturely. John of Damascus declares that “The divine light is radiating from an earthly body. The godhead . . . enables the body to share in his own brightness and his own glory” (Homily on the Transfiguration of the Lord). That is, the divine has come near in Christ and revealed true human nature as sharing in the divine presence.
Irenaeus of Lyons stated that “the glory of God is a living [human being]; and the life of [humanity] consists in beholding God” (Against Heresies, 4.20.7). What does this mean? Perhaps that the divine light of Christ’s transfiguration does not happen over against his creaturely body, but through it, prompting us to seek and recognize the ways in which the divine light permeates the created order.
Luke notes that the Transfiguration occurs eight days after the previous episode. This is different from Mark and Matthew, who echo Exodus 24’s use of “six days later.” That the Transfiguration occurs on the eighth day signals a new creation that emerges in front of Peter, James, and John. Certainly they encounter God’s presence, but they also encounter a transformed world through that same presence.
Along these lines, Paul challenges us to embrace the world through the “sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2). That is, the Spirit’s freedom helps us see how the world might be redeemed and transformed in the light of the God who is a “lover of justice” and who “established equity” (Psalm 99:4). We do not lose heart (2 Corinthians 4:1) because we trust that God will ultimately transfigure the entire cosmos.