The Transfiguration of Jesus is noted in all three of the synoptic gospels (today in MT 17:1-9), which recount that event that took place on “a high mountain” where Jesus went with three of his disciples – Peter, James and John – to pray. What happened there – the transformation of Jesus into a being of light, visited by the spirits of Moses and Elijah – could be characterized as the first great mystical experience of the Christian era. Most likely Jesus was not expecting this happening or he would not have taken anyone with him on this retreat since he cautioned them not to speak of the incident upon their return. By some accounts, the disciples had already witnessed miracles that convinced them Jesus was not the “Messiah” they had been waiting for who would restore the kingdom of Israel. But this was different. This was clearly an experience of union with God that was unprecedented in their midst.
Theologians are unclear about when Jesus became totally aware of his identity, most leaning these days toward the end of his life because the argument that to be “truly human” – including the suffering he endured – would not hold had he not entirely emptied himself of his godly nature. If this is so, the incident of the transfiguration would have been further confirmation for him of his mission. It can also help us as we think of the experiences of Christian mystics throughout the ages who have recounted moments of insight, sensing the presence of God in ways deeper than our ordinary consciousness. Additionally, when we read of those (including young children) who have had “near death experiences” we learn that they are generally suffused with light – most likely not different from the light that enveloped Jesus on the mountain that day.
Mystical experiences cannot be sought; they are pure gift. We can only prepare ourselves for unitive consciousness by our everyday living, opening as best we can to God’s love and desire for our happiness. Practicing by prayer and love for God and others, we can be sure that – if not in this life – we will certainly be suffused with the light of God in the next.