November 20, 2012
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Matthew 17:1-8.
After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses, and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.
The depiction of this scene strikes me as a tableau, a kind of carefully crafted set. The language seems different to me than most of the gospel writing. It’s more akin to the descriptions of the nativity. To me that means that it carries more of the writer’s imagination than recordings of the parables and healings and teachings.
It was obviously important to the early Christian Jewish community as it is included in all three of the synoptic gospels and contains a number of Hebrew Bible references that would be familiar to the community. Both Matthew and Mark reference six days, although six days after what isn’t clear. It probably alludes to God revealing himself to Moses after six days on the mountain. Luke, however, has it as eight days. Moses represents the law and Elijah the prophets. The three tents relate to the Feast of the Tabernacles (lasting seven or eight days which may explain Luke’s reference) in which Jews were commanded to make a pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem. THe tabernacles were temporary structures for shelter, which represented the temporary tents of the Jews during the exodus. “This is my beloved” recalls references in Psalms and Deuteronomy. There is more as well, but the point is that the passage is freighted with meaning. It’s like Matthew and the other gospel writers wanted to pack all the symbolism they could imagine to give import to this event.
I love the contrast in this passage between God and Jesus. God was untouchable, could not be gazed upon, and was essentially unknowable. In the Hebrew Bible He was given a voice but no other human characteristic. Those who encountered Him were always struck with fear, were overcome by the terrible awesomeness of His presence. Jesus was always approachable and earthy. He enjoyed food and wine and companionship. He literally touched people to heal, to calm, to show his love and compassion. He touched his disciples here, all three apparently, when he could have simply told them not to be afraid. But the human touch is intimate, tender, affirming. These were his chosen disciples, his band of brothers whom he loved and trusted. He touched them to quell their fears, to reassure them, to extend his understanding and love.
God said, “Listen to him.” So, they put aside their fears and picked themselves up off the ground. That is God’s message for me everyday. “Listen to him.” And Jesus’ message as well: “Do not be afraid.” How many times did the gospel writers record those words? How many more times must Jesus have spoken them during his ministry? Maybe he was speaking to himself as much as to his listeners. Maybe God was always whispering in his ear to not be afraid as each day brought him closer to his crucifixion. Maybe Moses and Elijah were telling him on the mountain to not be afraid as he set upon the path to Jerusalem. It by riddling me with fear that Satan finds my vulnerabilities and tries to drown out the voice of God. But Jesus tells me to not be afraid. He alone can transfigure me. I have heard him tell me in these very words, “You are my beloved son. Upon you my favor rests.” It washed away my fears; it turned me from darkness to light.
That’s what the transfiguration means to me. That’s why, had I been a gospel writer, I would have given this event so much importance, imbued with so much meaning.