Transfiguration Sunday, Year A
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”Matthew 17:1-9
“An appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being” and “A sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something, through something simple and striking (such as an event).” These are the two top definitions of “epiphany” in the dictionary. These definitions serve as the bookends for our season of Epiphany. The two major epiphanies of Epiphany are the discovery of the God Incarnate by the Magi, and the disciples suddenly recognizing Jesus’ essential nature on the mountaintop. Though the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop appears in all the Synoptic Gospels, and other places in the New Testament such as our reading from II Peter, Matthew’s telling of the miracle continues his explanation of Jesus as the new Moses.
As you may recall from last week, Jesus, in parallel with Moses, gave His sermon on the mount, explaining the truth of the Torah Law and more importantly, how Himself as Messiah has come not to overthrow the Law, but to fulfill it. In the chapters between the sermon on the mount and today’s epiphany, the disciples and those around Jesus are slowly beginning to realize who Jesus is, not merely a great teacher or prophet, but the messiah. Immediately preceding our episode Peter receives the highest praise, and the harshest criticism, from Jesus when Peter is the first disciple to proclaim who and what Jesus really is. Peter, when asked who Jesus is, correctly answers that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, the fulfillment of the Law. Jesus is delighted that Peter, and presumably the rest of the disciples, have figured it out, but when he begins to explain to Peter and the disciples that the Messiah will undergo suffering and a shameful death, he is disappointed to find their epiphany not quite complete. Peter rebukes Jesus for saying such things, to which Jesus replies in the calmest manner possible by calling Peter Satan and scolding the whole group for not listening to him.
Our story today picks up with Matthew narrating that six days have passed since the argument between Jesus and the disciples. Six days is not necessarily Matthew knowing all the details about the Disciples itinerary, but a theological explanation about what has happened between Jesus and the disciples. Matthew had our passage of Exodus in mind when setting up the story of the Transfiguration, because God calls Moses ascend the mountain and wait for six days while the presence of God descended and settled on the mountain. The disciples, struggling with the revelation of Jesus as the messiah, wait for six days before Jesus calls them back to the mountain. Just as Moses encounters God for six days before going back for a longer forty day meeting, the disciples, having encountered God, are given six days to be in His presence before the next greater revelation occurs.
And what a revelation it is. Having reached the intellectual conclusion that Jesus is the messiah, Peter, John, and James see Jesus transfigure before their very eyes. They see him converse with the greatest heroes of their people. There is a light show, a terror, a booming voice from heaven, one could call it, at the very least, quite the weekend retreat. Undoubtedly it was a transformative event for Peter, John, and James, and it always seems odd that after all the drama and mystery is revealed, Jesus tells them to keep the whole experience to themselves, at least until after He has completed His mission of defeating death and rising from the grave.
While it may sound odd for Jesus to make the disciples swear secrecy after such an amazing and transformative epiphany, and biblical scholars point to this and many passages like it as examples of Matthew creatively “borrowing” from Mark’s literary concept of the Messianic Secret; I wonder that if we put aside the literary implications of the Messianic Secret for a moment, if there was a pragmatic and pastoral reason why Jesus would instruct the disciples to tell no one about their mountaintop experience.
After all, how many of us have had a mountaintop epiphany? A moment where we were able to clear away the cloud of lies, step out of the ordinary, and see the face of God, or if not that, some deep and profound truth of humanity, the world, or the vastness of the universe? For some it was a youth retreat or a revival, where with scripture readings, music, foot washing, tears, inspirational speeches, hugs and a feeling of comradery with friends that you only made two days ago but will you are certain that they will be your best friends for the rest of your life, where the powerful, overwhelming sense of God’s grace and love was finally so clear. Maybe it was a vacation or semester abroad, where finally freed from the shackles of your ordinary responsibilities and political rhetoric, the beauty of diversity yet at the same time, all peoples being one human family was undeniable. Or maybe it was a retreat into nature, away from the distractions of modern life, you were able to reconnect to our primordial nature as children of God, looking up into the sky to see the northern lights, the multitude of stars, the vastness of the ocean, or the splendor from a mountaintop, the wonder of God’s creation was never more clear.
There are countless more examples, the truth is we are given opportunities for grand epiphanies many times in our lives; from a retreat away from the ordinary, to the sudden realization of the miraculous nature of the ordinary. If we reflect on the epiphanies we have had in our lives, once we look past the event and the grand truth itself, a certain pattern may be discerned. The first is the removal from the ordinary, the second is the revelation or “mountaintop experience”, the third is experiencing an inner transformation by the experience, and the fourth is returning back to ordinary life bearing the new Truth, or the rediscovery of an old Truth. Much to-do is made about the first three steps, but what is often swept under the rug is the crushing disappointment that happens when returning to ordinary life. That mountaintop experience, that fundamental and transformative truth you discovered, even that awesome trip you took, once you get back, no one cares.
For all of us who can think of times that we have had transformative experiences and retreats, we can probably think of at least a dozen more examples of us rolling our eyes as others described their “transformative” hiking trip; or how they are now so much more “sophisticated and understanding of humankind” after spending a semester abroad in Europe. Everyone loves taking vacation pictures, no one loves seeing someone else’s vacation picture slideshow.
So what are we to do with our epiphanies if no one else is interested? For some they solve the disappointment by constantly chasing the high. Always planning the next trip, the next retreat, the next mountaintop experience of God. They never want to come back down from the mountain, if they were Moses, they would spend not forty days, but the rest of their lives in the cloud in the presence of the LORD. Others are so disappointed that while they were transformed, the world remained frustratingly the same, that they write the epiphany off as nothing more than an emotional high. There was no greater Truth, no transfiguring self-discovery, no face of God, just a nice vacation from the ordinary slog. For those who aren’t fully cynics or emotional thrill-seekers, there is the disappointment of struggling to explain the epiphany. How can mere words summarize witnessing the Truth of the Living God? How can stories dive the depth of feeling when realizing the Truth of one connected humanity? This I think may be a reason why Jesus told the disciples not to tell anyone of their mountaintop experience. He wanted to spare them, at least for a short time, the frustration of trying to explain the mystic to the ordinary.
The trouble with epiphanies and mountaintop experiences is not the experience itself but bringing the transformation back into the ordinary. Sometimes this is called “the problem of integration.” Here again is where the story of Moses can help us understand the mystery of the Incarnation, and how to solve this problem of epiphanies.
Moses, for all his decades of hard work leading the Israelites out of Egypt into the promised land, never actually was able to enter the promised land. Due to an episode in Numbers where Moses and Aaron took credit for one of God’s miracles, Moses and Aaron are barred from entry [Numbers 20:1-12]. Moses survives all the way to the end of the desert, so tantalizingly close to the goal he had been working toward for decades, he can see the promised land on the horizon. After saying farewell to his people and giving a long speech about being faithful to God and the Law [better known as the book of Deuteronomy], God tells Moses to go up on a mountaintop one last time. On the mountaintop, God shows Moses the promised land before he passes away.
What is surprising for us modern listeners of the conclusion to Moses’ story is that Moses is not outraged that God would not permit him to enter to the promised land after decades of service to God. Moses is overwhelmed with joy simply to see the promised land. That is the last epiphany given to Moses, the reassurance that he fulfilled his duty, the reward to know that his mission had been accomplished, and for all the struggle and slog, he and God had led the people out of slavery into freedom. This is the same comfort we can take from our epiphanies. We live in a sinful, frustrating, and faithless world, so much so that when we witness great Truth and Transfiguration, we are tempted simply to brush it off as an emotional high. The work we are tasked with continues, and like Moses, we will not likely see it come to completion within the short span of our lives. This is not something to discourage us, this is why God meets us in youth retreats, retreats to nature, adventures to new lands, on mountaintops, and even in the profound understanding of the ordinary. The truths we find when we meet God are undeniable truths, and they transfigure us into what we are meant to be, they moments when God takes us to the mountaintop to see the promised land. Having seen the promised land, we know that humanity may not yet finish that journey in our lifetime. Yet from the mountaintop we see the promised land, and by seeing it, given the strength to continue the journey.
Now as Epiphany draws to a close, remember this transfiguration, this mountaintop. For the days ahead we descend the mountain not only to our ordinary life, but the living Christ calls us to come into the desert with Him as He fulfills the promise of the Messiah. Be of good courage, have faith, for though we are descending into the desert, we have seen the promised land.