Translating the Transparent Transcendence of Transformation That Transpires in Transfiguration Pt. 2
Updated: Mar 20, 2022
About eight days later, Jesus climbed the mountain to pray—taking Peter, John, and James along. While he was in prayer, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white.
Suddenly, they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. They appeared in glory and were speaking of departure—the one Jesus was about to complete in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Peter and those with him were slumped over in sleep.
When they came to, rubbing their eyes, they saw Jesus in his glory and the two men standing with him. Just as Moses and Elijah were leaving, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, this is a great moment! Let’s build three dwellings: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter blurted this out without thinking.
While he was speaking, a cloud came and enveloped them; and they became deeply aware of God. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son—the Chosen; Listen to him!”
When the sound of the voice died away, they saw Jesus there alone. They were speechless and during those days, they told no one of what they had seen.
When Matthew and Mark tell the story of “The Transfiguration” in their Gospels, they both use the Greek word metamorphoō to describe what happens to Jesus. Metamorphoō is where we get the English word metamorphosis. The transfiguration is a metamorphosis—a change in form or nature resulting in something completely different. But Jesus is not alone in his metamorphosis. Five other characters are specifically named as experiencing the transfiguration: three disciples—Peter, John, and James—and then, strangely…Moses and Elijah. What a seemingly odd spectrum of witnesses! From present-day disciples to heroes of the faith—a quirky combination of questioning teenagers and long-dead, eternity-accessing prophets. Those long-dead prophets, Moses and Elijah—they have climbed mountains before. They know transfiguration firsthand. In fact, hundreds of years after the time when Moses would have descended, glowing from his own mountaintop metamorphosis with the ten commandments, Elijah is said to have climbed the same mountain for a transformational meeting with God. Something seems to happen to people atop the mountain with God. All the characters named in Luke’s transfiguration account bear witness to this reality. They are common fishermen, abandoned children, outcasts, and enemies of the state who become priests, prophets, emancipators, and martyrs. This transfiguration doesn’t seem as though it’s just about Jesus. Perhaps that’s the first statement revealed by the details of this story:
Anyone can be transformed.
At one point in their respective journeys, every character in this story winds up transformed on top of a mountain. In ancient wisdom writings, the mountain itself was a symbol of transformation. Mountains represent a change in elevation—seeing things differently—a transformation of our viewpoint. No one ascends and descends the mountain unchanged. Every step of the journey—our hiking, climbing, resting, even our falling—can result in transformation—a change in the way we see God, or others, or ourselves. Once more, in a relationship with God, we should trust that we will inevitably and repeatedly encounter mountains of metamorphosis. Such opportunities for change may not be wanted or invited—they may not even initially be accepted—but in the words of the great theologian Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come.” It’s not hard to imagine that James, John, Peter, Elijah, and Moses—our strange and specific multitude of mountaineers—would agree. In fact, we don’t even have to imagine because their stories and testimonies of transformation fill the pages of the Bible. In addition to testifying to the truth that anyone can be transformed, their stories also remind us that transformation is not a passive experience. There is work to be done. On one level, the roles Moses and Elijah play in the transfiguration of Jesus declare that our metamorphosis will, at the very least, require us to
transcend our past —and friends, that’s not easy.
When the transfiguration begins, Moses and Elijah—pillars of the past, voices of fidelity and prophecy are there—literally talking with Jesus. And then, they’re gone. The disciples emerge from the cloud and only Jesus remains. This conversational presence of Moses and Elijah is the very picture of honoring our past—listening to it—but not remaining stuck in it. Our past informs us, to be sure. It is included. Our past is part of the conversation—but we transcend it. We grow beyond. Our earlier boundaries dissolve into something larger. In yet another nod to details, Luke’s Gospel is the only gospel that tells us what Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are talking about. Verse 31 says they were speaking of Jesus’ coming “departure.” The Greek word translated as “departure” there is the word Exodus—which is a fascinating detail. Moses and Elijah are not tourists. They know what they’re talking about. They’ve lived Exodus. They’ve experienced departure. Just like Jesus, both Moses and Elijah have literally carried a divine message for which the religious establishment wanted to kill them. And just like Jesus, both Moses and Elijah carried that message anyway. Can you imagine two better people to be in the cloud of witnesses on top of this mountain? Moses and Elijah have been there. They know something of what Jesus is facing. They can provide council. Yet, they can’t walk the path Jesus will walk. Our past informs us, but it can neither contain us nor carry us. During times of stress and trauma, we will be tempted to regress—to retreat into the nostalgia of what we tragically remember as better times. We may even worship and pray to a smaller god—the one we knew before our transformation—but the Eternal never fits in the boxes we create. Just like radiant light or an enveloping cloud, God spills out—the divine gets loose in our lives—absorbing and exceeding our carefully curated and preserved past. We include our past—but our transformation requires that we transcend it. The light and cloud of Jesus’ transfiguration absorbs Moses and Elijah and all they represent. There is continuity…but there’s no going back. The transfigured Christ transcends the past and moves forward—
turning toward Jerusalem and the suffering that awaits him there.
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