This is a most unusual story, one which defies logic. The gospel writer tells us that six days after Jesus made his first prediction of his death and resurrection, he took with him three of his disciples and climbed a high mountain, presumably to find a secluded spot in which to pray. But what he describes as happening next is so other-worldly, so far removed from our normal experience of life, that we may find it hard to believe the accuracy of the account. In the presence of his disciples Jesus begins to radiate light, a light so bright that “his face shown like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (v.2). Two figures – whom the disciples recognize as Moses and Elijah – appear at his side and speak with him. A cloud then overshadows them all, and a voice sounds from heaven with such strength and power that it strikes fear into the disciples’ hearts. They fall to the ground, and when they look up, it is over, and Jesus stands before them, alone and looking as he had before the vision occurred. What happened? Who can say for sure? I can only imagine they must have been relieved when Jesus instructed them to tell no one what had happened. Who would have believed their account?There is no rational explanation for what happened here; the whole experience is one of mystery. We have entered a realm where systematic, logical analysis does not apply. And yet there are those who have tried to find some explanation for what happened, and for what it all means. Recognizing how prominent this story is in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, they have looked for reasonable answers. In the Transfiguration, they suggest, God was revealing Jesus’ divine identity in the presence of Moses, representing the law, and Elijah, representing the prophets. The voice from heaven declaring that Jesus is God’s Son, the Beloved, shows that he is the promised Messiah, and God’s insistence that the disciples “listen to him” establishes Jesus as one who is greater than the law and the prophets. Peter’s response – wanting to preserve the experience by building three booths – illustrates the thick-headedness of the disciples, who prefer to linger here rather than head down the mountain to resume their dangerous journey towards Jerusalem. And all of these conclusions may indeed be true – except that the story doesn’t explicitly say any of these things. All of these are, in fact, interpretations of faith that reflect theological doctrines that took centuries to develop. They would not have been the lenses through which Jesus or his disciples or Matthew, for that matter, would have understood the event.
A story like this resists any easy interpretation. It is fantastic, lying “beyond the reach of historical reconstruction or scientific verification.” (1) It is points to a mystery beyond our comprehension. Mystical encounters such as these are never easy to explain; words are always inadequate.
Perhaps it makes the most sense to listen to what the mystics of the Church have said about it. The story as we have it describes Jesus being transfigured in the presence of his disciples. His appearance changes, and for a short time he radiates a dazzling brightness, a brightness reminiscent of the appearance of “the glory of the Lord” in the Hebrew Scriptures. But in the contemplative tradition of the Church it has often been suggested that it was the disciples who were changed rather than Jesus. It was their eyes that were opened for a brief moment in time to behold the glory that was in Jesus from the beginning of all time. It was they who were given a glimpse of the divine nature of the teacher whom they had chosen to follow. For a moment their eyes were opened to see the real nature of Jesus, to glimpse his divine glory, to know him as the Beloved Son of God.
For those seeking a rational, scientifically verifiable explanation of what really took place upon the mountain top, this explanation will be no more acceptable than any other. It too reflects the language of faith. But it may still be true, because it also reflects an understanding of the human condition that is common not only in the contemplative tradition of Christianity, but in other prominent religions as well. This understanding maintains that human beings live much of their lives in a state of blindness; that we do not see ourselves or the world in which we live clearly or accurately. According to this understanding, we bring far less than full awareness to our experience. Lost in past memories and hypnotized by future fantasies, we sleepwalk through life, oblivious to the sacredness of the world around us and blind to the sanctity of others and of our own selves. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly,” suggests St. Paul, “but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (I Cor.13:12). Our human condition is such that we see dimly, as in a mirror; we know only partially what exists around us and in us.
Each of the faith traditions holds before us the possibility of regaining our sight, of dropping our blindness to see and recognize the sacred all around us, and in us. And so, in one of our Eucharistic prayers, we pray God to“open our eyes to see [God’s] hand at work in the world about us” (BCP, p.372). We acknowledge that God is everywhere present, that in God we live and move and have our being, and yet we are so often blind to this presence and ignorant of its activity. As Christians we affirm that Jesus is the “light of the world” who has come to illumine our darkness, and that God has sent him “to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind” (Lk.4:18). There is a way out of blindness.
The well-known Trappist monk of the 20th century, Thomas Merton, left a wonderful description of how other people appeared to him when his own vision returned. He was standing on a street corner in Louisville, Kentucky, he wrote, when his moment of insight came. He writes:
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths where neither sin nor desire can reach, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way there would be no reason for war, for hatred, for cruelty…we would fall down and worship each other. (2)
Merton is describing what some contemplative authors have called a “unitive” moment, a brief window in time when we sense our union with God, and with one another, and with all created beings. Such moments defy logical, rational explanations. For a time we are able to “see” in a way that we have never been able to see before. Perhaps you’ve experienced something like this before.
These moments change us, just as surely as this moment of encounter with Divine Mystery must have changed Jesus and his three disciples. We are never quite the same afterwards, even though the experience must soon fade; it cannot be manufactured or sustained by the force of our own will. It defies logic and explanation, and is simply a gift of grace.
I wonder how this moment might have changed these disciples. Perhaps it confirmed in their minds that Jesus was the Messiah, the Beloved Son of God, and assured them as they set out to follow him on his way to Jerusalem. Perhaps it was a unifying moment for their faith, tying their experience of Jesus with their faith tradition, through the appearances of Moses and Elijah. Or maybe it recorded itself in their minds as a mystical, magical moment in which they powerfully experienced the presence of God. However they understood it, they thought it important enough to record for future generations.
And what do we make of it, you and I? How does it inform our understanding of who Jesus was and is? What does it teach us about what we do not yet understand or grasp?
These same three disciples were to accompany Jesus in his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane in just a few days. It seems that those who witnessed his heavenly glory were also to witness his earthly suffering. Those who wanted to share his glory realized that they must also be prepared to participate in his suffering if they were to be true imitators of him. That is what discipleship is all about. Mystical experiences find their true value in lives of compassion and love. We need to ask ourselves, “Has this experience helped me to become a person of love?”
1. Hare, Douglas; Matthew (Interpretation Commentary); (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993); p.198
2. Merton, Thomas; The Seven Storey Mountain; (Orlando FL: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1948).
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