This Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday. The season of Epiphany is drawing to a close and Lent beckons from the darkened corners of my quiet sanctuary. How does one set the stage for Ash Wednesday (and Lent) by opening the door to personal and spiritual transfiguration? How might we differentiate between the more familiar term “transformation” and idea of being “transfigured”? What are the practical implications of the transfiguration for Christians today? Two thousand years removed from the events described, is there a place for us?
I do not believe Jesus ascended a mountain with his favorite trio to hold a divine conference call with Moses and Elijah. Instead, Mark (and the other gospel writers) needed to create a story which resonated with their 1st century Judeo-Christian audience. Mark wants to frame a world of parallels and similarities between Israel’s greatest historical leader, Moses and the new Moses, Jesus. Like Moses, Jesus climbs a sacred mountain and encounters God; thereby transforming his physical appearance. If this is not the depiction of a historical event, (a literal interpretation likely rejected by Mark’s first readers) what is Mark trying to tell us about Jesus’ identity?
In the words of the old hymn, “where he leads me, I will follow”. Jesus is leader and a guide to places we would never go on our own. Much more than a shepherd, Mark’s Jesus walks with us as we navigate our own spiritual journey and come closer to God. Like a Sherpa leading climbers up Mount Everest, Jesus goes with the disciples towards the unseen summit. The guide doesn’t leave the climbers behind at any point. A true Sherpa is a leader who guides from a place of companionship. The disciples form a community of companions; walking with each other to the place where transfiguration occurs.
Secondly, Jesus leads us to a place of perspective. The disciples walk to a high place, somewhere they can return their lives to focus and meaning. Mark seems to describe a brief event; one where time and space cannot be measured by conventional means. Within these moments, the overwhelming clarity brought to their lives by Jesus’ presence is too great for them to willingly relinquish. Peter, James, and John do not want the experience to end. When the dust has settled, only Jesus remains; Moses and Elijah are gone. Jesus is the only constant in this “mountain top” experience. The Jesus who brought them to the summit and will escort them to the valley never changes. The true test of an authentic Christian experience is found in love. The love Jesus shows to his disciples and then teaches them to share with others is how we encounter God.
Loving others, particularly those who are suffering, is the way we hold on to the experience of encountering God on the mountain. Jesus undergoes a metamorphosis-that’s the Greek word for transfiguration. His physical appearance was completely altered. Mark tells us that there was no bleach on Earth which could have made Jesus’ clothes any whiter. This is Jesus’ Moses moment. Not only does Mark want to present Jesus as the new Moses; Moses is present to pass on the prophetic mantle. At one time, Moses was part of a new thing in history, the 10 Commandments. Jesus is part of God’s new, new thing called the kingdom of God. This time there are no stone tablets; only flesh and blood. The word of God is a person chosen and endorsed by heaven. The voice from the clouds says, “Listen to him”.
Why does Jesus order the disciples to remain silent about this experience? Why tell the readers of Jesus’ desire for privacy? The talk of the supernatural would distract people from the message. When we focus on eternity at the expense of the present, we ignore God in our presence. A God who suffers (a crucified God-to borrow a phrase from Moltmann) is a God we meet in the suffering victims of our world. Jesus’ suffering transfigures our lives in spite of the evil and death haunting the valleys we roam. In our suffering, God suffers with us, we encounter crucified Christ, we are blessed and the moment of transfiguration continues forever.