1 Kings 19: 9-18 Psalm 27
2 Peter 1: 16-19 Mark 9: 2-9
What we hear in the Gospel today is an epiphany, a manifestation of Christ, a revelation of the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth. Was it a dream? Was it a waking vision? Was it a story Peter recounted many years later as he remembered it of his experience on the mountain that day? Or did this transfiguration story originally come from James or John? It certainly has a dream-like quality.
It might be useful to our understanding of this unusual episode in the story of Jesus to see how the earliest Eastern Orthodox icons present this scene. In the earliest depictions of the subject the background of the icon is either deep blue or black to symbolize the immensity of Heaven. The foreground is a stylized mountain, scaly and steep. At the bottom of the icon are the three friends who had accompanied Jesus to the mountain, all appearing at that moment to have been hurled down from a height. The central figure of this group, Peter, is pictured covering his face with his hands for protection, as if the blinding brilliance of what he saw was too much for his eyes. John also has his hands on his head, but as if suffering a shock, the involuntary response to a bewildering revelation. His brother James appears to have been flattened, literally knocked off his feet by what he sees happening to Jesus further up the mountain.
And what is happening to Jesus, this astounding epiphany they are witnessing? In these early iconic windows to eternity Jesus appears to be lifted up, his feet not touching the ground, and framing him from behind are large dark star shapes. He is enclosed in a circle, or more often a mandorla, a more oval shape that in iconic shorthand indicates divinity.
On the left and right hand of Jesus, usually pictured as standing on pinnacles, are Moses and Elijah. But our eyes are strongly drawn to the central figure of Christ, who when he ordinarily appears in icons is dressed in deep red and dark blue, in this is clothed completely in dazzling white. Instead the star shapes that form the background and appear to be lifting him, are red and blue. What the companions of Jesus see that day through the dazzling whiteness of his appearance is his humanity, the surface Jesus they had known up to that moment, opening up to reveal his inner, divine self, the dwelling of light from deep within him. This opening up they witnessed is a gateway to an endless journey to God.
To Western eyes the strangeness of an icon readily seen but mysterious is the reverse perspective used in it. The vanishing point is not in the distance as it is in western art, drawing us forward. Rather it is the spiritual force looking out through the icon, focusing on us. We are the center of attention in this spiritual connection. It is as though God is gazing at us through the drama of the action of the icon, drawing us into the scene, making us a point of the encounter.
If we try to imagine what is going on in the hearts of those companions of Jesus at the moment of Christ’s transfiguration, we sense a tremendous shift. This brilliant rabbi they have left their former lives to follow is not just a holy person pointing them to God. What takes place before their eyes indicates he is far more. It is as if in the brilliant light that emanates from him they see the mystery of the incarnation made visible. They still see the humanity of Jesus, but also his divinity. As if to make it even clearer, they see him with Moses and Elijah, the representatives of the divine law and prophetic witness of God. What they witness in that instant knocks them off their feet. And if that were not enough for one mountaintop experience, a dark cloud obscures their vision and from it they hear God’s voice, “This is my son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”
In the vision the brightness of Jesus’ clothing is too intense. No wonder they cover their eyes and are toppled from their feet. No doubt they remember the account of the shining face of Moses reflecting God’s glory, and the admonition from scripture that no one can see God’s face and live. In comparison to the gleaming aura of Jesus, Moses and Elijah, the symbols of the Law and the Prophets, seem in shadow. Not that they are replaced, but rather that Jesus transfigured is the essence, the revelation of God’s glory the law and the prophets point to.
When the vision fades and Jesus returns to them, Peter talks of building three shelters on the mountaintop and all remaining there. He wants to hold on to the “high” of revelation, to grasp it with his hands and not let it go. But Jesus leads them down the mountain and into the valley again. It is as if to say God is there in the low places as well, in the ordinary day to day of our lives. Even so, we carry the memory, the blessed assurance after we have transfiguring experiences. Sometimes our collisions with God are the very encounters that save us and keep us alive. But Jesus leads us, is always ahead of us, elusive, not always visible or comprehensible, not always easy to see. So to follow him we must at all times be awake, alert, always looking for him, looking to him to find our way, because he is our way.
Later on, in the final days of his short life, Jesus took those same friends with him to Gethsemane. And they were shocked by his desperation, his spiritual turmoil and his arrest by those who would ultimately kill him. The mystery of the incarnation encompasses the entire range of human experience. There is no expression of it, no matter how mundane or shocking that is foreign to God’s experience. No matter how hard we are tried or how far we fall God has been there before and God is with us in our misery. How the behavior of Jesus at Gethsemane must have shaken the understanding of God for these disciples. Could this rabbi really be the son of God if he could suffer and die in such a horrible manner, no different from the most abject of the powerless poor? No wonder they were confused. No wonder they abandoned him and fled when he was about to die. We suffer the same confusion when the God we think we know is revealed as someone so much greater, someone so much more mysterious than the God we thought we knew. In the staggering light of truth we sometimes turn away or cut and run.
But let us return to the vision Jesus’ friends saw, keeping in mind a major turning point in their relationship with him that had occurred a few days before.
At that time, as if in doubt of who he himself was and what his vocation was to be, Jesus asked his friends, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responded as if the penny had just dropped for him, “You are the Christ, the Son of God.” On the mountain came the final confirmation. They see Moses and Elijah talking to Jesus (not with him) assuring him of what God has called him to do. And then to underscore their words, God speaks from a cloud claiming him, calling him beloved and commanding them to listen to him. Rest assured Jesus heard God’s voice as well as his friends and in it his divine purpose became clear. From that moment he knew what God had called him to do, not just the next step he was to take, because he trusted that at the appointed time that would be revealed, but for what he had been given to do for eternity, blessed assurance of who he was. He was transfigured, changed forever. If he had questioned his destiny, his vocation, all doubt was removed by that experience.
But what is the message in all this for me, you may be thinking. There is a divine transfiguration available to each of us individually through the spiritual process the Eastern Orthodox Christians call becoming Christ, when God reveals to us and others our divine purpose and mission, when the question of what God wants of our lives is answered. This revelation may not be as dramatic as what Jesus experienced that day. It probably won’t be, although sometimes we are given visions or hear God’s voice. But whatever form the enlightening takes we are convinced by it that we are God beloved and assured as well that God has given us a purpose for our life. No longer do we blunder about in doubt, even though the next step may not be immediately clear. We, too, are transfigured, changed forever. Whatever specific form it may take, our role is to help make this world the creation God intended. It is a personally costly vocation, demanding daily sacrifice, to drink his cup, but in being true to it God’s glory will shine through our lives. It will also shine in our faces, the shine that comes from knowing God loves us personally, deeply, and has given us work to do, to bring the promise and light of God’s transforming love to our broken and despairing world.
As we gather for the Eucharist let us remember that the cup we share is one of thanksgiving and sacrifice and that the revelation of who we truly are, God’s beloved, redeemed and transfigured, requires of us both.
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.