Epiphany began with a star high in the East above Bethlehem and concludes with Jesus’ megawatt brilliance on the mountaintop. But in this season of light between Christmas and today, the focus is almost always on the manger and the mother, John’s preaching in the wilderness and Jesus’ baptism.
While overlooked and often forgotten, this radical change of appearance remains. So why then do we need the Transfiguration?
Matthew 17:1-9 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Perhaps it was Jesus, not the disciples, who needed to be reassured of God’s blessing for the ministry below.
We need to be held in the light if we’re to face the death to come in Jerusalem.
Jesus is revealed as the Beloved, even more so than the Law and the Prophets.
B.K.S. Iyengar, the father of modern yoga and the teacher most responsible for popularizing the ancient Indian discipline in the United States, wrote scores of books on the various poses. He covered tree pose, which strengthens balance and raises self-confidence. Bridge pose, which improves digestion and alleviates mild depression. Cobra pose, which invigorates the heart and elevates mood. But B.K.S. said that the most beneficial pose is also the most difficult one, especially for Americans. That’s Savasana, the last pose in yoga class, where we are simply invited to lay on our backs and close our eyes and open our hands and breathe, to prayerfully consider what’s most profound: the love inside ourselves, the divinity of our neighbor, the unexpected holiness surrounding us. But most of us just can’t, because we’re too distracted.
When Jesus exploded like a supernova, the disciples were too distracted as well. James was distracted by terror, falling to the ground and covering his eyes, trembling in the fetal position. Fear blinds the God standing right in front of us. John was distracted by awe, too overwhelmed by the beauty of the moment to actually receive it. We’re often too quick to look away from the very thing we need to see most. And Peter was preoccupied with driving a nail and hanging a shingle to construct a monument to the Messiah. The easiest way to distract yourself from God is to busy yourself doing God’s work.
Of the many reasons I believe the Bible is inspired, chief among them is the unedited story of humanity’s flawed attempts to be a faithful people. It’s all there: the denials, the rejections, the infighting, the competitions. And after this missed encounter on the pinnacle, the text tells us that the core disciples didn’t have the scales lifted from their eyes, didn’t understand that the Savior must suffer and didn’t even preach about it later in the Book of Acts.
So here above the tree line where the air is thin, we are invited to do what the disciples didn’t: to behold the luminous glory of Jesus, to let his radiance warm our skin, to be stewards of the sun.
Why do we need the Transfiguration? Because next Wednesday our foreheads will be marked with black ash to begin our journey through the dark days of Lent. And if we’re going to make it to Easter, then the only way to get there requires carrying the light of Christ to light our path so that we can carry our cross all the way to Calvary.