Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to Him!” (Mark 9.7)
Transition Takes Center Stage
This Sunday, in keeping with many liturgical traditions, churches around the world will revisit the Transfiguration of Jesus—that mysterious episode in which Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to a mountain, where they witness a supernatural display of the Lord’s divinity. It’s a milestone event in Jesus’s life, one of the big dots that connect everything, from the prophecies to the Resurrection and beyond. It’s a major event in our lives, too, as Transfiguration Sunday falls annually before Ash Wednesday, when millions of believers set out together on a virtual pilgrimage to the cross.
Thus, transition takes center stage as we contemplate the Transfiguration. Something happens on this mountain that reroutes the course of Jesus, the three disciples, and us. Collectively, we go up one way and come down another. The change is most dramatic in Jesus. He is visibly altered. The extent and nature of His transformation is not clear; Matthew and Mark use the word metamorphosis to describe it, while Luke settles for a term that means “something different.” Jesus’s physical appearance suddenly becomes radiant with bright light and His clothes become “dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” (Mark 9.3) In other words, the manifestation enrobes Him in priestly gowns, while divine glory emanates from His being.
Since this occurs on the heels of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ (Mark 8.29), it would seem that He has taken Peter—and Peter’s two competitors, James and John, a.k.a. “the Sons of Thunder”—up this hill to confirm Peter’s belief. (In Matthew’s version, Peter’s recognition of Jesus’s true identity ends with him being given charge of the Church, which will become a bone of contention for the Thunder Boys. So it’s essential that they see this transformation, too.) But evidence of Christ’s divinity goes beyond Jesus’s transformation. Two Old Testament icons, Moses and Elijah, appear beside Jesus to verify He is indeed the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets, after which a cloud overshadows them and God’s voice declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to Him!” With that, the episode ends and Jesus entreats the disciples not to say anything about what they’ve seen “until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” (v9)
Time to Look Ahead
It’s a fearsome sight to behold—so much so the three men aren’t sure what do with this revelation. Peter, ever eager to act, suggests they build three shrines right there on the mountain: one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. His impulses aren’t half bad, as all three are immortally linked with mountaintop events that rewrite history. Moses is remembered for receiving God’s covenant on Mt. Sinai, Elijah for definitely demonstrating God’s supremacy on Mt. Carmel, and Jesus for delivering a new covenant on Mt. Calvary. Together, they comprise Scripture’s three towering mountaineers who scale its highest peaks. And, given that Jesus is about to make good on Sinai and Carmel’s promises, the extraordinary wrinkle in time that brings the three of them together couldn’t be more fitting.
Yet, through no fault of his own, Peter lacks to the foresight to perceive the Transfiguration’s implications. Despite his prescient faith and the luminosity of this unearthly experience, he’s not privy to the plan, which must unfold on ground level. It calls Jesus down from the mountain, to move and work among the lowly and self-exalted, to travel a treacherous path that leads to His final ascent up a different hill, where divine love will be raised on a commoner’s cross and God’s infinite grace and mercy will flow down like water into our valleys of despair. This isn’t the time to build shrines. It’s time to go to work. The presence of past icons at the Transfiguration redoubles Jesus’s conviction that it’s time to look ahead.
Stumbling Toward Calvary
Verse 10 informs us Peter, James, and John honor Jesus’s confidentiality request, while also underscoring their consternation about the event and why it mustn’t be discussed. “So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.” Holding onto the secret must be difficult. Surely the other disciples are curious about why Jesus singled them out and what transpired during their time with Him. No doubt the experience confuses and concerns them. The hint that the phenomenon they witnessed is tied to Jesus’s death—which He talks about with alarming frequency of late—must frighten them, while the promise of resurrection baffles them. Inevitably what they’ve seen and heard informs everything they see and hear thereafter. They know nothing is what it seems. Yet what it is is far from clear to them. In effect, the Transfiguration and its revelation hobble them to the point that they find themselves stumbling toward Calvary, relying completely on faith in Christ to offset the profound uncertainties the event stirs within them.
Coming off the Mount of Transfiguration alongside Peter, James, and John, it is right, I believe, to step into their shoes—to enter Lent’s passage honestly admitting that the Christ revealed to us, and in us, hands us much we don’t yet understand. And so we return to ground level, moving and working our way through everyday life, confronting its inexplicabilities and contradictions, relying completely on faith in the One Whom we follow. When others ask what’s going on, we can’t really say. Nor should we, because this is not a time for talking. When others press us to prove what we’ve seen, we have nothing to show. Nor should we, as this is not a time for building shrines and practicing rituals.
It’s a season of watching and listening. We have been overshadowed by a cloud—“overshadowed” in the same sense that Mary is overshadowed by the Holy Spirit to conceive the Christ Child—and, like her, what has been revealed to us will one day be revealed in what is born through us. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to Him!” God says. And so we leave the Transfiguration as seasoned mountaineers, listening intently to the Christ Who calls us apart and preparing ourselves for the next climb, when faith in a God made flesh will lead us to history’s highest peak, where we too will be transformed as we observe the mysteries of death give way to the miracle of resurrection.
May Lent’s season of change find all of us stumbling toward Calvary, confused, uncertain, and solely reliant on faith in Christ to bring clarity and understanding to all that we’ve seen and heard. Amen.
We descend the Mount of Transfiguration as seasoned mountaineers, mystified by what we’ve seen as we return to life at ground level and stumble toward faith’s highest peak, Mt. Calvary.