I walked up a mountain recently – very slowly – to the Wild Horse Mountain lookout, and had to sit for a while to recover! I’m clearly not designed for mountain climbing! But as read this Gospel text, Matthew 17:1-9, I thought of the wonder I felt and joy, of finally being at the top, looking around a full 360 degrees, enjoying the view, the lightness of the sky, the distances I could see, the breeze, and the different perspective we have of our surroundings when we are high up, and of having created a shared memory with companions.
Jesus, Peter, James and John ‘walked up a high mountain by themselves’ (Matt.17:1) and while there, we are told they experienced something extraordinary and special. They encountered God, who spoke to them. They saw Jesus’ divinity revealed in breathtaking fashion, a life-changing epiphany for everyone.
The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is among the most consoling and encouraging of the Gospel stories. I wonder what the men talked about as the trudged up the mountain path and what they were expecting Jesus to do when they arrived. Were they expecting something special, or simply an opportunity to look at the views and enjoy some peace, privacy and time to pray quietly?
What happened to them cannot be explained reasonably and I’m not going to try. We do know strange things happen on mountaintops in our scriptures. When we hear of people going up mountains, we know an epiphany is about to happen. However, we can think about the events as they are described, what they might mean to us and what we can learn about God from the story.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of the transfiguration which in Matthew, follows Peter’s identification of Jesus as Messiah, and comes before Jesus returns to Judea and Jerusalem where he will be betrayed and crucified. It happens six days after Jesus had told his disciples all his life-giving teaching and hope-filled healing would instead lead to his arrest and death at the hands of the authorities. It was not a story of worldly glory, power and victory, although, after all this, Jesus spoke of his rising from the dead and we realise God’s story is eternal.
This shared experience of the four men together on the mountaintop is one of the most transformative for the disciples; since they too began to realise they must be willing to take up their own cross, like Jesus. Peace, privacy and prayer were not what emerged on the mountain.
I also want to think about what it might mean to ‘practice transfiguration’ once we have come down off the mountain, when our joy and delight at what we have seen has faded, when fear of failure and the uncertain future might once again take hold of our minds, what it’s like to return to the reality of everyday life, the power of sacrifice and the impotence of death which faces us all.
One commentator, George MacLeod writes such a transfiguration means:
The cross must be raised again at the centre of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Christ was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves, on the town garbage-heap…because that is where He died and that is what He died about, that is where the church should be and what the church should be about. (MacLeod 2005. p4)
The tension between human life transfigured and a theology of incarnation, the Word made flesh, held in love by Jesus’ experience of the human condition of suffering, grief and loss, is transformational. It means we can hold onto the Christ who answers us when we call, who is with us as redeemer. He is the One who suffers with us.
The journey down from the mountaintop, after such a climb and such a shattering experience, provides us with the much-needed break between epiphany and daily life. It provides us with in-between times. We travel both physically and spiritually, as we return to level ground and daily living. It’s where Jesus continued his ministry among all God’s people, in the valleys, fields and cities. We are still able to hear God tell us, if we are paying attention and listening:
This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him. (Matt. 17:5)
On a previous occasion when Jesus had been on a mountaintop, he had been talking with Satan, and had been asked about the view. This time, he’s with his disciples, with Moses, Elijah and with God. It is as though all the confusion and horror and fear of the uncertainty has been swept away. Jesus is indisputably the Christ, the Son of God. The disciples had their eyes opened, and they saw a new reality, and once seen, they couldn’t unsee it, just like us.
God had revealed to them and to us, Jesus’ way is God’s way in the world. The one whom they were following had the power to transform them into disciples of God’s love and justice and to heal a broken world. It’s not surprising they are overcome by fear.
Fear at what is revealed, fear at the change to their lives, fear of what is to happen and fear in encounters with the presence and purpose of God can also fill us with awe and wonder. We know we are given over to God’s purposes. God gives us mountaintop experiences transforming and transfiguring our lives forever as we know life will never be the same again. A new way of living is on its way, and while the cross is in the marketplace, it means we are also there, bringing God’s healing presence to everyone who is hurt and frightened as we to work for justice, healing, transfiguration and peace. This is our theology and practice of transfiguration and transformation. We are bringing with Jesus, God’s light down from the mountaintop to share with everyone.
The Lord be with you.
Jarvis, C.E., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Eds]. 2013. Feasting on the Gospels Matthew, Vol. 2 Chapters 14-28. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.
MacLeod, G. 2005. [Quoted in Patrick Lai]. Tentmaking: business as Missions. Colorado Springs, CO, Biblica p.4