“And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.” (Mt 17:2) Transfigured, metamorphoo – to change the visible appearance; I used to think that maybe Epiphany would have been a better title for what happened on the mountain top. Epiphany meaning the revealing or the unveiling. Then again, I don’t think the full glory of God was revealed; just a single layer was pealed back. Perhaps transfigured is the better word. How much more could the apostles have seen and heard – and, more importantly, to begin to comprehend? The Book of Exodus 33:20 says that if we saw God face-to-face we would not survive the encounter. It would be too much for our mortal being. So, maybe it is better that only a single layer was peeled back.
No doubt, there is more to be revealed, but not on that mountain top and not on that day.
For the moment, it was enough that Peter and the others kept their eyes on Jesus and began to try and figure out what all this could mean. So, they were attuned when they heard: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” (Mt 17:5) So much revealed in such a short time. What dots were they trying to connect as them pondered what this could mean?
And as we move through Lent, aren’t those our questions? What could all this mean? What dots should we be connecting?
Before Jesus entered public life, he plunged into the waters of the Jordan. He had nothing to repent, no sins to wash away, no emptiness to be filled, no brokenness to be made whole. But Jesus came to the water, anyway, to open our eyes and show us that the heavens had been torn apart for us; the veil of the kingdom turned back just a bit, just enough to let the light shine into the world – to show the way. In his baptism, Jesus began to shine a light on our path to the Father. And so too, we rise from the waters of our baptism, marked in ashes, to again take up the journey, seeing what we see, ever listening.
Before he entered public life, Jesus faced the temptations in the wilderness, shining his light on the path to navigate temptation in this world. Jesus was tempted to forget who he was and whose he was. He needed nothing Satan offered. Jesus needed no shortcuts. He knew the way to the Father and taught us how to navigate the journey. If only we would keep our eyes on Jesus and our ears attuned to his Word.
In his public life, the Word came alive in the Sermon on the mount. The continuing echo “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” transfiguring the Scriptures we thought we knew to reveal another layer of understanding and how to be in the world. Today on another mountain, the disciples are reminded that they have already heard Jesus. Now they are asked to discern if they have really listened.
Water – temptation – Word – transfiguration –all pointing ahead to the empty tomb on Easter. There is so much more to tell you. The life of Jesus was filled with signs of his mystery and his majesty. Everything — his words and his actions, his prayers, his temptations, his stories, his suffering, his friends and disciples, the miracles he worked– were navigation charts showing us the way to God.
Jesus had nothing to prove, no riches to gain, no agenda to fill. But he ascended the mountain to open the eyes of his disciples and offer a vision of the life and resurrection to come. His face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And at the moment of his Transfiguration, Jesus illuminated the path to the glory of the Father. His transfiguration was a preview— a foretaste of the transformation that awaited his disciples, both then and now. This experience was so overwhelming, so unexpected, so filled with the presence of God, that Peter didn’t want to leave. He offered to pitch tents for Jesus and the prophets and stay on that mountaintop, basking in the warmth of God’s light.
Peter did not see that the path would lead through Good Friday and the Cross. The road to Jerusalem awaited Peter as it awaits us on this Lenten journey.
Keeping our eyes fixed on Christ and our hearts open to mystery is not always easy. With time and practice we can do it. And as our central vision focuses on Christ, our peripheral vision will become sharper and our hearts more tender. We will start to see the people who are hidden by the crowd or walking along the edges of the path, among the brambles and the weeds. We will start to hear more clearly and feel more acutely.
Keeping our eyes fixed on Christ and our hearts open to mystery means that we will become more, not less, engaged in the world. It means that the sorrows of a Syrian mother, searching through dusty rubble for the remnants of her life will become our sorrows, too. It means that the bewilderment of a senior, deciding whether to spend his money on food or his monthly medicine, becomes our bewilderment and our burden, too. It means that our hearts will break and stretch and find new strength as we take on our share of hardship for the Gospel. This experience can be almost overwhelming. Like Peter, we long to say, “Lord, it is good that we are here! Let’s just stay here for a while, safe up on the mountaintop— safe with our friends.”
Like Peter, we are never quite ready to turn our faces toward Jerusalem and our feet on the path to the cross. But the One who plunged into the waters of the Jordan and offered us a glimpse of the resurrection is the One who saves us and calls us to a holy life. He calls us, not because we are brave, or strong, or even very wise, but because we are his beloved. He calls us to “Rise, and do not be afraid.”
And so, we come to this Eucharist to receive the Christ transfigured in the bread and wine. We fix our eyes on Christ and open our hearts to the mystery of His Body and Blood. We rise from our pews unafraid. Pushing aside the temptation to stay and move into the world. And we begin again that journey to Good Friday and the Cross with sharper vision and compassionate hearts; to see the world and connect the dots. To become transfigured, revealing the glory of God, to all we meet along the way.
Some images and ideas inspired by Dr. Susan Fleming McGurgan