Last Sunday after Epiphany(C): The Mystery of the Transfiguration
By: Colin Cushman
I’ve never been a big fan of this passage, so when I got this passage to write on, I wasn’t thrilled. However, as a preacher, that’s part of the game; that’s what we sign up for. The lectionary serves up these stories to us, whether we like them or not. And so, preachers are forced to take them up and wrestle with them, even if we would rather not. And this is a good thing, as it forces us out of your comfort zone and makes us work through that which we would not do so otherwise. Personally, I’ve never understood the story of the Transfiguration. Some people get a lot of richness and depth out of it, but I never have.
One of the things I dislike is that this passage encourages theologians to wax philosophical. This is especially prominent when you read ancient Christian commentaries. For example, Gregory Palamas (1296–1357) finds in this passage a metaphysical rumination about God’s “essence” versus God’s “energies.” I’ve never particularly liked philosophy and when I hear this breed of interpretation, my eyes just glaze over. Plus, I can only imagine that philosophical exactitude was really only a preoccupation of social elites. I can’t imagine that the average ancient manual laborer was sitting around trying to figure out what the difference is between essences and energies (or even what they are in the first place). Maybe that’s why I’ve never been wild about this passage.
When we focus on the philosophical level of the story while skipping the literary level, we miss something important. After all, the literary level is how most of the listeners through the ages would have understood the story. When we look at this particular story through a literary lens, we see that it is chock-full of all sorts of allusions, cross-references, and symbolism to sink our teeth into.
For example, take two of the most evocative symbols in the story: mountains and clouds. First of all, mountains evoked a sense of connection to the divine throughout almost all of the ancient world. In a universe where the prevailing thought was that the Divine was located in the heavens above, a mountain was an axis mundi that bridged heaven and earth: in ascending the mountain, we get closer to God, both physically and spiritually. That’s why in the Bible, we see important revelations happen on mountains. The most notable example is Moses receiving the Law on Mount Sinai. Through its many details, that story connects altitude with nearness to God. Or take another example: Elijah. When he was being hunted and panicking that he would be executed, he took refuge upon that very same Mount Sinai. While there, he communed with God, who renewed him and sent him back on a mission. And if that’s not enough, Elijah also makes two additional appearances earlier in today’s gospel: (1) the disciples discuss him amongst themselves, and (2) the crowds suspect that John the Baptist is Elijah come back to life.
Note, too, that these two figures—Moses and Elijah—are the very same figures who also appear at the Transfiguration. Interpreters have offered myriad interpretations of this fact, some more compelling than others. Moses and Elijah might represent the Law and the Prophets, the two components of the Hebrew Scriptures. Or, both Moses and Elijah had become eschatological figures and were believed to be coming back at the Day of the Lord, when God dramatically steps into history and sets things right. Or, since Moses and Elijah are the most important characters in the Hebrew Scriptures, this places Jesus among esteemed company.
When Jesus stands alongside these two giants of the faith, it evokes a number of important theological themes. Jesus is worthy of being included among the holiest of past figures. Jesus isn’t breaking from the religious tradition of the past; rather, he stands squarely within it. Jesus is an eschatological figure concerned with setting the world right. These two figures have a lot of symbolism wrapped up just in their being present at the event.
The second evocative symbol, the cloud, appears toward the end of the story, where it completely engulfs the disciples. If in the ancient mind, mountains are the bridge between the heavens and the earth, the clouds surely are Heaven itself. In the Hebrew Bible, clouds stand in for God’s immediate presence and power. While the Israelites were in the wilderness, when a cloud rested on the tabernacle, they knew God was there. Then when that same cloud left the camp, they followed that cloud to a new location. Hundreds of years later, the cloud of God’s presence streamed into the Temple at its dedication—comically making it so that the priests couldn’t do their jobs! Thus, when the disciples in our story find themselves surrounded by a cloud, they understand themselves to be encountering God in an intimate and all-encompassing fashion.
Along with these two symbols, the Transfiguration story weaves in strands from other parts of the gospel narrative. It both echoes the (narrative) past and foreshadows the future. First, it clearly hearkens back to Jesus’ baptism, which kicked off his ministry. In fact, Jesus’ baptism and the Transfiguration are the only two times in the gospel that God (the narrative character) speaks. On both occasions, God affirms Jesus’ mission and his identity as God’s son who is specially set apart. But whereas the baptism proclamation ends with the affirmation “in you, I find happiness,” the transfiguration ends instead with a directive reinforcing Jesus’ authority over the disciples: “Listen to him!”
The story of the Transfiguration also calls forth the impending story of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. In both narratives, Jesus retreats from the public scene at a crucial inflection point in the narrative. He takes the same three disciples with him to pray—Peter, James, and John. And in both stories, the disciples can hardly stay awake while Jesus is busy talking with God. They are partially privy to the private yet momentous events taking place between Jesus and God.
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I still do not fully understand why people love this passage so much. Maybe for some, this passage not only holds together the gospel narrative but also integrates the various parts of the Bible, weaving them into an integrated whole. Maybe it’s because it clearly confirms Christ’s divinity. I don’t know. In the end, it’s still not my favorite story. Maybe I’m still just bugged by the fact that I don’t get it. So I think I’m going to stick with my cop-out answer: this passage is a mystery and we can never know what all it means.
 An axis mundi is a feature common in many world belief systems that there are geographical “centers” around which the cosmos spin, and which feature vertical features, such as trees or mountains, that allow for travel between the earth and the higher and lower worlds.
 Mount Horeb, as it is called in the Elijah story, is an alternative name used by some ancient authors for Mount Sinai.
Colin Cushman is a pastor in the United Methodist Church serving two small churches in the Seattle area. He lives north of Seattle with his wife, his newborn daughter, and his dog. He loves reading, mountain biking, playing music, and bird photography.