The Transfiguration of Jesus is one of those “wish I had been there” events of history.
The gospels record many mind-blowing events in the life of Jesus. But, as anyone knows who has tried to argue with secular humanists, that is not definitive proof of divinity. A lot of the miracles could be figments of fertile imaginations. Turning water into wine, walking on water, curing lepers, raising the dead – all are remarkable to be sure. But none of these events would be difficult for a skilled illusionist to duplicate. In a recent Broadway reprise of Godspell, the wine and water events are convincingly displayed.
It’s also possible that purported witnesses to these events, eager to portray Jesus as special, made them up. In the years before and after the birth of Jesus, magicians, mystics and prophets wandered Palestine hoping to draw attention as potential messiahs. Many of them used miracles to convince crowds of their specialness.
That doesn't necessarily diminish the uniqueness of Jesus of Nazareth. But he wasn’t the only rabbi working the crowds.
That is why the Transfiguration is hard to ignore. The unique event is less likely to have been made up by a group of retired disciples quaffing new wine while reminiscing about major miracles. The Transfiguration seems likely to have been based in reality than on some one’s creative fancies. You couldn’t make it up.
Here’s Jesus with Peter, James and John, all by themselves, on a high mountain. No one knows which mountain, although the Franciscans built the Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Nebo. Others think it was Mount Hermon, which was closer to Jesus’ stomping grounds of Caesarea-Philippi. But wherever it happened, there are consistently remarkable reports about what happened there.
“Jesus was transfigured before them,” Mark writes, succinct as always. And lest his readers fail to grasp what that means, he adds a somewhat tedious clarification akin to a Clorox commercial: “And his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” (Mark 9:3)
Matthew adds that Jesus’ face “shown like the sun” (17:2), and Luke reports, “they saw his glory” (9:32).
None of the gospel writers actually witnessed the event and their descriptions were based on traditions that had been repeated through several generations. They undoubtedly captured the essence of what Peter, James, and John told people all their lives, and even their references to bleached garments are passably poetic.
But do mere words capture what actually happened in the mountain? Artists have struggled with the challenge of depicting the image. Titian (1490-1576) sought to capture the drama by back-lighting Jesus and elevating him in mid-air, where he appears to welcome the apparition of Elijah with high-fives. Salvador Dali’s “Transfiguration” is giddy with abstract movement and color, though nearly a fourth of the lithograph is devoted to his own signature. It probably helps to be as mad as Dali to see what he sees.
In our own era, computer generated images may simulate what the Transfiguration must have looked like, but even then it would be an illusion based on digitally produced light and virtual images. It wouldn’t answer the ancient question, what was it that the disciples really saw?
Luke mentions (9:32) that Peter, James, and John “were weighed down with sleep” when Jesus began glowing and Moses and Elijah appeared at his side. Were they dreaming? Back in the psychedelic sixties, when I was in college, this kind of question seemed reasonable because we knew the mind was capable of generating some fantastical illusions. But as one who never admitted inhaling, I doubt a simple toke is the equivalent of divine inspiration.
An acid trip may be full of colors and wavy motions, but there is nothing miraculous about it. One of my summer school roommates was a dabbler in LSD and his excursions from reality were evidently terrifying. Late one July night I returned to our room in the midst of a violent thunder storm. I was wearing my Air Force raincoat, which billowed behind me like a cape, and when I stepped into the room my roommate awakened to see me silhouetted by a flash of lightning. He stood wordlessly, walked deliberately to the window, and jumped out. (Fortunately we were on the first floor.) The next morning, after a night of fitful sleep in the dayroom of a neighboring dorm, my roommate returned. “What a night,” he said. “I thought Dracula had come for me.” Whatever his experience had been, it was not a metaphysical revelation.
As a slight digression, these kinds of events were not unusual on a Christian college campus in the sixties. Actually, nothing was unusual in the sixties. In My Dinner With André, Louis Malle‘s 1981 film about two guys noshing, Wallace Shawn and André Gregory are having a two-hour dinner in a restaurant. The entire film is devoted to their circuitous conversation, and one of Shawn’s observations is about the sixties. The decade provided, Shawn speculated, “the last burst of the human being before he was extinguished.”
Sometimes, in the foothills of my old age, I think that may have been true. It was particularly true on a Christian campus where the metaphysical was always at our backs. Despite our immersion in traditional Baptist theology, I recall sitting in séances led by seminarians and believing I sensed the invisible spirits who surround us. I knew people who said they enjoyed driving around on Sunday mornings to enjoy the auras that emanated from churches where worship had just taken place. I had a professor who interrupted lectures to describe his most recent astral-projection to Florida and other places you’d think he could have visited by car. I don’t think you could get away with this stuff in 2018 because today people are likely to sneer at you or lock you up. But fairies danced on Christian campuses in the sixties, often without benefit of chemical inducements.
But to regress, the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain transcends and surpasses any glib encounters with magic or spirits. For one thing, the event could not have been simulated by sleight of hand or optical illusion. When Jesus’ face glowed like the sun, the sheer potency of the unexpected event scared Peter, James, and John out of their wits. And when Moses and Elijah appeared, Peter succumbed to babble.
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. (Mark 9:5-6)
Peter stopped just short of calling on John to send out for matzos and mackerel. The three disciples had seen Jesus perform miracles before, but this one was a stunner that required a change of underwear.
That’s what sets the Transfiguration apart from other miracles: it shook the very souls of its human witnesses and left them without doubt that they were viewing a pivotal moment in the history of creation. Here on the mountain, God and humanity connected. Time bonded with eternity. And the medium that brought heaven and earth together was Jesus of Nazareth, the evidently normal man with whom the disciples ate, drank, walked, and slept. The Transfiguration showed a dimension of Jesus they couldn’t imagine, and with frightening clarity before their very eyes.
And ears: “Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came as voice: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!’” (Mark 9:7)
The disciples swung around to see Moses’ and Elijah’s reaction but, with exquisite timing, they were gone. “They saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.” (Mark 9:8) In the snap of a synapse, the Transfiguration was over.
But the effects of the Transfiguration were eternal. The disciples stood on the mountain with Jesus so briefly but in the few moments that passed they saw who Jesus was and is and will be forever. That is why Christian theology assigns such significance to the Transfiguration. It is the bridge between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, a holy glimpse of the perfection of heaven, a clear declaration from God that Jesus is “my son, the Beloved.”
The Transfiguration is also a bond between the disciples, and between other Christians who lived and died across the centuries.
In his book, Reaching Out, Henri J. M. Nouwen tells of an encounter with an old friend he had not seen in a long time. They greeted each other and sat in the sunshine.
“It seemed that while the silence grew deeper around us we became more and more aware of a presence embracing both of us,” Nouwen wrote. “Then he said, ‘It is good to be here,’ and I said, ‘Yes, it is good to be together again,’ and after that we were silent again for a long period. And as a deep peace filled the empty space between us he said hesitantly, ‘When I look at you it is as if I am in the presence of Christ.’ I did not feel startled, surprised or in need of protesting, but I could only say, ‘It is the Christ in you who recognizes the Christ in me.’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘He is indeed in our midst,’ and then he spoke the words which entered into my soul as the most healing words I had heard in many years: ‘From now on, wherever you go, or wherever I go, all the ground between us will be holy ground.’”When Jesus and his three disciples climbed the mount of Transfiguration, they sensed what would follow: crucifixion, martyrdom, persecution and terrible suffering. But for a moment, the Transfiguration transcended all that and reminded them of the salvation promised by God.
So it is with all of us. Life has its ups and downs, its moments bitter and sweet, and none of us know when or how our lives will end.
But in Reaching Out, Nouwen reminds us that all our worries and fears are in God’s hands:
“Jesus showed us all that the very things we often flee – our vulnerability and mortality – can, at any moment, become the place of holy transfiguration, for us and for our world.”