Thomas Merton, renowned Trappist monk and author, observed that “we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.” That is the central truth of Luke’s account of the “Transfiguration”. That word itself signifies ‘profound change’ of some kind. Indeed there are several profound changes that confront us in Luke’s take on the event – a passage rich in its reinforcement of who Jesus is and what his mission was and is.
Luke’s way of telling this story speaks of the joy of what C.S. Lewis called a ‘thin place’, a place of intimate communion and sensing of God’s presence, and, in contrast, of what it will ultimately take to bring about the Reign of God –
Jesus setting his face toward Jerusalem and eventual death on the cross. Together, these dynamics look forward to a new day, the traditional ‘eighth day’ after the seven days of creation, the day when all things are made new.
Jesus leads Peter, James and John on a mountain climbing journey. Mountains are places where thoses ‘thin times’ of heaven meeting earth can occur. On that mountain, Jesus sets himself to prayer while the weary disciples, in a state of half-waking,, half-sleeping “awake” to new insight into their teacher. In their hearts and minds, they see him in a fuller light, as it were, as a fulfillment of something transcendent. In this sense, they pass from spiritual sleep to a state of being fully awake.
As Sister Joan Chittister, Benedictine nun and author, points out, “what (the disciples) see at the top of that mountain is, at least, unexpected and certainly disturbing. You see, at the top of that mountain before those apostles, Jesus does not appear with Aaron the priest, who was the interpreter of the law. Jesus doesn’t appear there with David the King, the defender of the state. No, Jesus does not appear with symbols of royalty or ritualism. Jesus appears to those apostles with Moses and Elijah, the prophets. Moses, who led the people out of oppression; Elijah, whom King Ahab had called, ‘that trouble of Israel,’ because he condemned the people’s compromise between true and false gods as the underlying cause of their problems”.
Moses and Elijah – prominent figures in predictions of the climax of history since both are said not to have died, but ascended into heaven. Moses and Elijah who are said to appear at times when heaven makes itself seen. These appear with Jesus in a new vision of the climax of history, of the fullness of the Reign of God even though that fulness means Jesus’ painful “departure”. Luke is telling us that what has been longed for is being realized in Jesus and will come to full completeness in him – even though it means a path of suffering. As Jesus prays, the disciples are drawn into a new, fuller vision of him – but a vision not yet completed. They see the glory, but not the suffering of the cross.
So taken are these disciples with the glory of that ‘thin place’, that closeness of heaven and earth on that mountaintop, that Peter suggests they stay there, building shrines to some sublime experience. Dennis Bratcher points out that “Peter wants to build dwellings on the mountain because they have not understood the suffering dimension of Jesus’ life. They have not yet understood the incredible price he will have to pay for speaking the truth, for bringing the word of God into the world, for announcing the Kingdom.” Nor do they realize the price they themselves will have to pay for following Jesus. But Peter’s shortsightedness becomes an occasion for proclamation of the good News. The voice from the cloud, a cloud reminiscent of God’s presence with the journeying people of Israel leaving Egyptian bondage, announces, in a voice reminiscent of Jesus’ baptism, “This is my son, my chosen, listen to him.” And to listen is to follow him – back down the mountain to the places where the Reign of God must be established trough the work of mission. ‘Stay tuned in’, the Voice suggests, there’s lots more to come’. The message definitely implies that the disciples can’t stay here in this ‘thin place’.
Jesus immidiately returns from this sublime moment of intimacy with God, along with Peter, James and John, to people down the mountain who were hurting. He continued carrying out the mission of God to bring healing and renewal. Immediately following the Transfiguration account, “On the next day”, as Luke reports, comes the healing of an epileptic child, confirming that the Kingdom of God has already come in Jesus and will become even fuller. There is more to come. God is on the mountaintop, God is with the needs of people. We don’t stay on the mountaintop.
So ultimately, the truth of Merton’s observation that we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time reflects the tension between inner experience, and our public presence as followers of Jesus. Joan Chittister is right; “the role of religion is to bring us to an awareness of life. The role of religion is to transform the world.” We are called to both. That is Transfiguration. “What God changes, God changes through us,” remarks Chittister. I am thankful that in our Anglican community, in this corner of Canada, we know this truth of Transfiguration, and we seek to live it as we serve the Mission of God.
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