Translating the Transparent Transcendence of Transformation That Transpires in Transfiguration, Pt 4
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.
We all have the capacity to be transformed. Our transformation will require us to transcend our past, and suffering will transpire. These are not easy ideas. These are not warm fuzzy realities we tend to run toward. This kind of understanding is hard-earned. It’s experiential. It takes time. Interpreting our experiences, assigning meaning to them—wrapping our hearts and minds around all that has happened—is not something we can do quickly.
Translation takes time.
This story ends with the specific detail that Peter, John, and James decide not to immediately share everything they experienced on the mountain. According to this detail, they don’t even tell the rest of the disciples. They had just seen Jesus transfigured—glowing and radiant. They had just hung out with Moses and Elijah. They had just been enveloped by a cloud and heard a divine voice. They were literally experiencing metamorphosis—and yet, nothing. They hold it. They keep it to themselves. Friends, there is no way I could have done that. I would have told everyone I could find. I would have written a book, done a podcast, posted it on social media, and printed t-shirts. I wouldn’t have thought twice before blurting my experience out to anyone who would listen. Enter my boy, Peter. He gets me. In yet another odd detail, Luke’s story of the transfiguration tells us that upon seeing Moses and Elijah speaking with Jesus, Peter blurts out without thinking, “Master, this is a great moment! Let’s build three dwellings: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Friends, I agree with Peter! I understand being so excited by what I’m experiencing that I must take action. I get being so motivated by what I think I understand that I have to do or say something. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Peter as taking action by wanting to build three dwellings—one for Moses, one for Elijah, one for Jesus. This is not story filler.
This is a clue—another strange but important detail.
The Greek word translated as dwelling in all three gospels is the Greek word skēnē—which is a tent, tabernacle, or temporary dwelling. Peter wants to build three tents or three tabernacles. The Festival of Tabernacles was the central feast of the ancient Israelite faith. It was and is a celebration to commemorate the 40 years when Moses and the Israelites wandered and waited in the wilderness—living in tents, depending on the provision of God, translating what it meant to be a liberated people. Peter would have celebrated this eight-day festival every year of his life. The prophet Zechariah declared the Festival of Tabernacles to be the festival that all the nations would celebrate forever—a time when, as Zechariah 14 states, “God will come, and all the holy ones with him.” Peter sees a transfigured Christ flanked by Moses and Elijah and assumes he’s got it figured out—God has come, and the holy ones are with him. It must be time to celebrate the festival. It must be time to build some tents! It’s like Peter and I were separated at birth. I get him. I do the same stuff. Even before the transfiguration of Jesus is over, Peter assumes he’s got it all figured out. He knows exactly what it means. He knows exactly what to do. But Luke makes sure we know that Peter did not have it figured out. Luke tells us that Peter blurts his tent-building suggestion out without thinking because translation takes time. Grasping the meaning of our transformational experiences doesn’t happen instantly. It takes space—room to breathe. As my teacher used to tell me, “Clarity comes in the living.” We wrestle with meaning over time, by walking things out, by falling down and rising again—just like Peter. The truth is, even when I do blurt out my mountaintop revelations, no one else really understands them because metamorphosis has to be experienced directly. It can’t be shared on social media.
Transformation is non-transferable.
As Father Rohr says, “We can’t believe it because someone else talked about it. Sooner or later, we have to go to our own mountaintop. We have to have our own transfiguration…and walk down the mountain toward the path of suffering.” And that takes time. Peter’s tent-building outburst and the disciples resulting decision to keep their transfiguration experience to themselves for the time being reminds us that clarity comes in the living, not in the moment. We can’t expect to fully understand metamorphosis as it is happening to us.
Translation takes time.
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