Lord, it is good for us to be here. Poor Peter: well-meaning, over-eager Peter, who always manages to say the wrong thing. This is so terrific, can we stay here forever? I’m not at all sure I want to stay perched on a mountaintop surrounded by whirling clouds and visions of prophets past and light so dazzling that it blinds me. I might be the one running for the exits if I saw what Peter and James and John have just seen.
A thousand years before Jesus undergoes his transfiguration, Moses endures a similar change. He has gone up the mountain to consult with God, and he is so transfigured by the experience that when he comes back down he must wear a veil, lest his brightness blind his followers. Moses is never the same after that encounter.
As for Jesus, when he comes down off the mountain, he is on his way to Jerusalem, headed toward the death that does not get any easier for knowing that he has chosen it. Like Moses, Jesus will never be the same after this encounter.
And what about Peter and James and John? Caught up in the cloud of unknowing, they will have to sort out for themselves what is fundamentally transformed about them after this inexplicable encounter, the phenomenon of nature and the voice of God. This is a pretty clear sign of what Jesus has been trying to tell them, that his death is at hand. Sometimes things have to get really scary before they get holy. And given what comes before this mountaintop moment, it’s safe to see that Peter and James and John are never the same after the transfiguration. Peter, for once getting it right, has declared that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God. And Jesus has told his followers that he must go up to Jerusalem to be executed. It will be up to them to embark on a new path, this time without the guidance of their Teacher. Just by being near the clouds – by being transfiguration-adjacent – they know that their responsibilities have changed.
So many times, the event of the transfiguration is posited as a before-and-after experience: on the mountain versus off the mountain. The experience on the mountain is glorious – but in time we all have to come back down off the mountain and carry on with the more mundane tasks of daily living.
The reality is that the persons who grope their way down the mountain, half-blinded by this dazzling encounter, are not the same people who strode with reasonable confidence up the mountain. When Jesus touches you and me, it is a holy touch that acknowledges the suffering and sin intrinsic to the human condition. At the same time, it is a healing touch that lets us know that we are not alone. The glory and the suffering are always intertwined. And it is the tentative steps we will take, in glory and in suffering, that will lead us forward into the new creation.
Their time on the mountain has surely shown the disciples a momentary glimpse of what it must be like to be Jesus – simultaneously glorious and terrifying, so wondrous that they want to inhabit it for all time, and so dazzling that they cannot wait to get away. And having followed him and sat at his feet and learned from him for three years, they knew in an academic sense what they were being taught to do. But now, here on this mountain, here in this moment, they are being shown, in a visceral way, what it must feel like to be inhabited by the power of God. After this moment, it will be up to them, inhabited by the power of God, to go and serve as the light of the world.
What have been the transformative moments in your lives? What have been the periods of chaos and fear, periods during which everything was in flux and the way forward was impossible to see? Jesus knew it; Moses knew it; and you and I know it too. Creation begins with chaos. To get to where we need to be, to become the persons that God is calling us to be, we might well need to endure those moments of thick obscuring cloud and blinding light on a mountaintop. But the promise of Christ’s abiding presence also means that we need never face the whirlwind alone. When transformative moments occur, when we are caught up in a cloud and blinded by the light, it is worth knowing that even as we must fumble our way forward into a new and unknown path that Christ is with us, leading us down the mountain and showing us the way.
I have no doubt that when Peter and James and John accompanied Jesus up the mountain that day, they had no expectation of a close encounter with the creator of the universe. But when it was all over, when the four of them were left looking around at each other, they had to know that nothing would be the same, that somehow in the transfiguration from teacher to true light, they were looking at the sort of world in which such things could happen.
The transfiguration shows us what it is like to live as children of the Creator and as followers of the Messiah. To live such a life, whether on the mountain or off, whether blinded by the dazzling light or finding a new way forward, we must acknowledge that creation requires chaos. Significant changes in our lives are often accompanied by the whirlwind of chaos and disruption, and that every occasion of chaos is but a necessary step on the path toward a new creation. But creation also requires the presence of a creator. Even as Jesus is caught up in the cloud and the dazzling light, he never leaves his disciples. So too can we be assured of his abiding and unfailing presence during even the most unsettled and unsettling parts of our journey.
What has changed in you and me? Is our eyesight still blurred from our encounter with the Divine? Blinded by the light, we are being asked to believe in the transfiguration even when we cannot see what has happened. But believing in what we cannot see is what gives you and me the presence of Christ on our journey. As we make our way toward the coming shadow of Lent, we will walk together through the valley of the shadow, and appear to find the garden and the betrayal and the cross at the other end. But in truth, we are being led out of darkness and toward a new light.
Jesus, taking us by the hand, is offering an invitation, a suggestion that we attend to the faint glow of the new light of creation, that we pay attention to it, like a lamp shining in a dark place. To know that you and I live in a world where glory is possible and light may break through at any moment.