One of the extraordinary events in the life of Jesus, chronicled in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), is known as the Transfiguration. That word when broken apart speaks to a process of changing form, which is what happened to Jesus and was witnessed by the apostles Peter, James and John one day on a high mountain where they had gone to pray. It is a familiar story. For those interested in detail, it is a great chance to question and muse about the what and why of the incident as each of the three versions in the gospels has small, distinctive differences, none of which changes the substance of the event.
I’m one of those people who likes to pay attention to the small things in order to get a feel for the underlying sense of emotions and reactions to what was happening. Today’s recounting is from MT 17:1-9 where the first thing that grabbed me was the place where they went to pray. The text says they went “up to a high mountain” and I began to ask myself: Why a high mountain? Is it symbolic of Jesus, the “high priest” – or more simply was it just a place where they wouldn’t be bothered by crowds? Then more deeply: Did Jesus know what was going to happen there on that day? Was that the only time he experienced a visitation from Moses and Elijah or others of his ancestors in such a visual way?
Then there are the three companions, not just observers but participants in the vision. I find it fascinating that in Matthew’s version, Peter (true to his usual manner of reactivity) seems not to be afraid at all in seeing Jesus transformed into a being of light, his clothes dazzling white, standing talking to two men who have been long dead! Whether or not he recognized Moses and Elijah, his enthusiasm caused him to blurt out the fact that it was great to be there and to make the suggestion that they set up tents and stay! Interesting also is that, although the vision did not frighten any of the three, the shadow that overcame them and the voice of God speaking out of the cloud the message that This is my beloved Son; listen to Him, terrified them such that they fell to the ground and hid their faces. In the end, I picture a tender scene that the gospel reports as Jesus coming over, touching them (probably leaning over to pat them on their shoulders) and telling them there was nothing to fear. The vision had passed.
What are we to make of all this? I recommend the message of Peter in his second letter where he speaks about the message God spoke on that day. “This is my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice from heaven when we were with him on the holy mountain…You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2PT 16-19)
Could that be a call to our own visionary seeing? Perhaps a waiting transfiguration of our own life?