The one marvelous trip that I have taken in my life was as a seminary student traveling seminar to the Middle East with our church history professor to study the Eastern Orthodox Church. While in Egypt, we visited a monastery and met the most remarkable monks who spoke about holy mystics whose faces shown with the reflected glory of the Risen Christ as he was transfigured on the mountain. They said that people who commune regularly with God and live in righteousness literally shine. You can see it depicted in the iconography of the Orthodox Church, the heads of the saints encircled in halos of light, representing the glory of God in the lives of these holy people. I have 3 such icons in my office. Drop in and look at them. They are quite beautiful. After 3½ weeks in that part of the world I found it easy to believe that the Holy Spirit visited people in the form of a bird, that icons weep real tears and that faithful people shine with the Light of Christ.
But that was a long time ago, and I hang out a lot with cerebral Presbyterians making it much harder for me to believe such things. Because of their more mystic worldview, Egyptian Christians accept the transfiguration as fact, while we Western Christians focus on Jesus who walked the dusty countryside preaching and teaching. We find it easier to believe in the dirty starving homeless vagabond with a ragtag group of followers because we see that in our world. We don’t see people with shining halos and dazzling white robes. We confess that we believe that Jesus is the Christ, that the carpenter and the king are one and the same, but we struggle with the meaning of the transfiguration of Christ in the same way as the miracles of Jesus—reflective of a primitive worldview.
Over the years, as a skeptical Western Christian who has been deeply affected by Eastern Christian mysticism, I have come to believe that there is a place between fact and fantasy, between imagination and history, a place where the timeless mystery of God breaks into human life and touches us.
The transfiguration of Jesus the Christ is a mystery of the deepest order, a mystery that was experienced by some of his disciples and taught by them as foundational to Christian faith.
The writer of II Peter claims the authority of an eyewitness to what he called Christ’s majesty. We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made know to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Whatever happened on that mountain was accepted as a revelation from the Father himself from the very beginnings of the church.
In verse 9, Jesus himself referred to what happened on the mountain as a vision. By this, he does not mean that it was some kind of inner psychological event because there were, in fact, 3 independent witnesses who shared the experience. What they saw and heard was not a natural function of ordinary human eyes and ears but a power granted by God himself to see what would otherwise be invisible to human sensibilities. The geography itself suggests divine mystery since the High Mountain is the traditional place where heaven touches earth, where God meets God’s people, where bushes burn without being consumed and where clouds cover the face of God as he communes with his prophets. This High Mountain is where the dazzling mystic Christ is confirmed as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
Matthew is a brilliant storyteller whose timeline takes on profound theological significance as he relates the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Just prior to the Transfiguration, Jesus sent the disciples to preach and teach without him for the first time, to testify to what they had seen and heard. They met him in Caesarea Philippi, full of stories of what they had done, of how people were responding. They told him that many people believed that Jesus was Elijah or Jeremiah or John the Baptist returned from the dead. Then Jesus asked them the pivotal question, the one which every believer in every time and place must answer. And who do you say that I am? Peter, in a rare moment of clarity, declared, You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. And Jesus replied, Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. The vision given to Peter, James and John on the mountain was divine confirmation of their confession of faith.
The voice of God confirmed Christ in his glory, but it also confirmed Jesus as the suffering Messiah. After blessing Peter in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus told the disciples, for the first, but not the last time, that he was going to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Dusty Jesus pleases God because he is willing to suffer for the sake of the kingdom of heaven which is at hand. Because of his radical obedience, God himself commands all followers of Jesus to listen to him, not just as an ethical teacher but as the one who submits to the will of God. The vision of the glorified Christ, therefore, is correctly interpreted and understood, not as a cleverly devised myth but as divine instruction into what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. All who follow Jesus must be willing to take up their crosses and follow him, all the way to Jerusalem.
Jesus’ final word to Peter, James and John is to be silent until after he is raised from the dead. His commandment and passion prediction are the framework for the transfiguration. Dusty Jesus becomes the mystic Christ through his violent suffering and death. All who call themselves disciples can only witness and participate in his heavenly glory by witnessing and participating in his earthly agony. Somehow, I find it easier to believe that a dusty itinerate carpenter suffered for the life of the world when I can see the Holy Spirit visiting as a bird in the sky, when I see real tears on the icons who weep for the suffering of the people, and when mystics glow in the reflected glory of the risen exalted mystic Christ.
To God be the glory.