The Transfiguration, found in Mark 9:1-13, Matthew 17:1-13 and Luke 9:28-36, is both a key moment in Jesus’ own ministry, and in the apprenticeship of his disciples. Meditation upon this scene, both in word and through icon, has been a powerful source of spiritual growth for Christians throughout the ages. The following is an excerpt from my book Ecstasy and Intimacy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit, available both in print and digitally at Eerdmans or Amazon.
In Mark’s gospel, as always, the placement of the event is key to its understanding. The overall structure of Mark’s gospel can be visualized as two “mountains” of revelation. The first mountain comprises roughly chapters one through eight, where the question “Who is this Jesus?” is given the answer “He is the Messiah,” anticipated throughout by the suggestiveness of the drama, and declared unequivocally at the climax by the mouth of Peter himself (8:29). The second mountain comprises chapters nine through sixteen, where the question “What kind of Messiah is he?” is initially answered by Jesus’ own reproof of Peter, where the Lord teaches that he is “a Messiah who must suffer and so enter into glory” (cf. 8:31). This exchange is then dramatically played out in the ensuing way to the cross. The transfiguration event comes just after this double “hinge” or “valley” between these two great structures (8:27-38), when Peter has been both commended for his insight into Jesus’ Messiahship, and challenged to accept (and emulate) Jesus’ true nature, as one who suffers and so is glorified. In Jesus, the “kingdom” or “rule” of God has already “come” with power (9:1), although things are not yet completely restored; the disciples are about to have the veil pulled back so they can see the significance of this One to whom they must listen. As Cyril of Alexandria explained, when the three saw the glory of Jesus and Moses and Elijah, the kingdom of God had come even at that point for them (Commentary on Luke, Homily 51).
Mark’s gospel sounds several notes that are particularly evocative. First, Mark encircles the whole episode with the repeated word “alone” (Greek, monon). Jesus initially takes the three disciples up with himself alone; at the conclusion of the vision, they see Jesus alone. This is a concentrated time with Jesus, a revelatory event that will shape their entire discipleship from this point on. Here they are, with a teacher who appears in glory that can hardly be described, so that even his garments glisten. Though they call him “Rabbi” (9:5), soon they will learn that he is has taken on a more glorious double role. He is being presented to them as fulfilling the picture of both the Suffering Servant of God, who is connected with faithful Israel in Isaiah 42: 1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12, and the visionary Son of Man, whom the Father glorifies, as a representative of God’s saints (Daniel 7:13-14; 26-27). Indeed, glory comes only through the route of suffering, and it is by this unlikely route that their Rabbi will win victory for them; this is what Jesus goes on to teach his disciples as they return down the mountain (9:9-13), though his teaching will not be fully understood until the end of the gospel. It is interesting that in Mark the episode of glory is sketched very briefly; almost as much time is given to Jesus’ lesson after they leave the moment of luminescence, with the Father’s word reminding them (and us!), “Listen to him.”
Matthew’s version (17:1-8, followed by 9-13) follows the same contours as that of Mark, though he has told the story in a striking way, recalling great revelatory events of the past, specifically, the encounters of Moses and the prophets with the Almighty. His narrative is twice pierced by the expostulation, “Behold!;” in the scene that ensues, we are told that the apostles have seen “a vision.” Indeed, the entire episode has the “rhythm” of an apocalyptic vision, as can be readily seen when we compare it with another visionary episode, such as that of Daniel 10:4-11. That is, the apostles see a wondrous sight, one whose face “shines like the sun,” the major luminary of the sky — this glowing One is greater than the mere angel observed by Daniel, whose face was “like lightning” (Daniel 10:6); and yet, unlike the prophetic visions that Isaiah, Moses and Elijah have of the Almighty God, this face can be seen! After beholding this wonder, the three hear a divine bath qôl (literally, “the daughter of a voice,” the term used by rabbis for the echo of God’s own word on earth). At this, they fall on their faces in awe, like many a visionary, and are touched and raised up, for God has something for them to do. Finally, on the way down the mountain, Jesus assumes the role of the interpreting heavenly being, a messenger frequently encountered in visionary literature. During their descent together, he explains the meaning of what has been revealed, so that the gospel can comment: “then the disciples understood…” (17:13). It is, however, Jesus’ whole life-direction—up to the cross, and beyond, to the resurrection and ascension—that provides the complete interpretation of their vision.
Luke’s account, found in 9:28-36, underscores both the significance of this staggering event within the flow of salvation history, and its power to embrace us personally. Here is a scene of true glory: doxa (“glory”) is the term used by Luke, reminding us of the appearance of God’s glory (kabod) which led the Hebrew people by day and by night through the wilderness. The Shekinah, that remarkable and ineffable Presence of God, was seen by the Israelites in the cloud of glory, both as a protection and as a guide, during their sojourn in the wilderness. It had the effect of irradiating their leader, Moses’ face, after he had been in intimate contact with the LORD, both on Mount Sinai and in the “tabernacle of Meeting.” Jewish people throughout the centuries have commemorated this time of intimacy with God in the wilderness by erecting tabernacles during the feast of “Booths” – a reminder of their dependence upon the LORD in a harsh environment, and his closeness to them as he forged them to be his own people.
After about 1000 years, in their time of Babylonian exile, perhaps the Jewish people had assumed that God had abandoned them, taking away his glory, which had been first in the portable tabernacle, and then had resided in the Temple since Solomon’s day. But in the vision of Ezekiel, the glory comes to the prophet, not confined to one place, not even to holy Jerusalem, but moving (as it were) on a celestial and fiery chariot-throne. Ezekiel’s vision demonstrated that God was still with them. So it was that, after Ezekiel’s era, rabbis of a mystical bent went in small conventicles, led by master seers, to contemplate the Ezekiel visions. Their hope was to themselves glimpse the glory throne, the heavenly courtroom, and the attending Angel of God, who could give them esoteric insight into the meaning of the Torah, the sacred Law. Any of my readers who are of an adventurous bent may search out some of the later Enoch literature (e.g. 3 Enoch) in order to learn what some of these mystical rabbis (called “Merkavah,” i.e., “ Divine Chariot” mystics) might have discovered in their time of ascetic separation from the world and prayer!
In Luke 9:28-36, we watch another rabbi taking his inner group of disciples to a holy place to pray. They call him “Master,” but through this event he will be revealed as greater than any mystical rabbi, indeed, greater than both the law-giver and the prophets. The very first verse of the narrative suggests that we are to expect something new—this event occurs on about the eighth day, which St. Ambrose reminds us was the day of Jesus’ resurrection and symbol of the New Creation (Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 7:6-7; EHG 239-40; The other gospels had detailed the “sixth” day, perhaps to recall God’s creating power – says St. Ambrose—but probably to recall the prescriptions for celebration of the Feast of Booths (cf. Leviticus 23:39). Their master enters into significant communion with Moses, and, Elijah, both of whom had, in their lifetimes, powerful revelations of God’s power, and poignant moments of intimacy. Moses, we remember, spoke with God “mouth to mouth;” Elijah was visited by God’s still small voice in a time of despair. These two great servants of God talk with Jesus about his death to come, in terms that clearly recall God’s delivering power in past times – Jesus is being strengthened in order to accomplish his “departure” (literally, his “Exodus,” 9:31), his redemption of the people, in Jerusalem. The disciples, though they do not understand all this, are themselves embraced by the glory of the scene. Though they are afraid, the cloud of glory, the numinous presence of God, envelops them, too, and they are left with the sound of the Father’s voice ringing in their ears: “This is my beloved Son, my chosen, listen to Him!”
Let us collect the images and themes here: intimate prayer with God; communion with saints throughout the ages; the careful recollection of God’s law and revelation in the past; the reminder of God’s redemption of Israel, pointing forward to the cross; the personal gathering up of the disciples into the glory of God, weak though they were; the centerpiece of the whole drama, Jesus, alone left before them, with God the Father’s own word directing us to focus upon Him, the chosen one. Jesus has been transformed before them while in prayer and in the company of major players in the divine drama. He is in center-stage. The Father’s voice speaks, leaving no ambiguity about who is in authority, making impossible a confusion of the human and divine.
At the same time, the glory on Jesus’ face transforms his disciples. They, like Moses and Elijah, are illumined by the Divine Presence of the Holy Spirit! As Ambrose puts it, “It was a luminous cloud that does not soak us with rainwater or the downpour of storm, but from dew that sprinkles the minds of men with faith sent by the voice of almighty God” (Exposition Luke, 7:19-20). Nor is the “faith” into which the three are initiated a matter of bare creed, for they are to become key leaders to mirror and pass on the mystery of God to other believers. There is no need to set up tents or booths of dwelling, for the disciples themselves are to become tabernacles — holy, portable shrines– of the divine presence, through what Jesus is about to accomplish. The communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit has stooped down to heaven, as evident in the declaration, the transfigured face, and the glory cloud. In this heavenly visitation, God has gathered up to himself those who are “with Jesus;” at the same time, the divine voice strengthens their identity (apostle, prophet, law-giver) as human before a mighty God.
Though they had a particular role to play in the formation of the early Church, these three apostles are also, as it were, stand-ins for the ongoing apostolic community, representing those of us who are, throughout the ages, and across the lands, in Christ. In this transfiguration of their Lord they have learned two great things, not simply with their minds, but in their hearts and in their bodies – first, God’s love is transforming, and he delights to make us “partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4b);” second, God’s authority is unquestionable, for he is God and we are his creatures. As the second Petrine epistle comments upon this event, “His divine power ….has called us into his own glory” (1:1); “No prophecy ever came by human impulse” (1:21). Here is the grand paradox: God is God and will not give his glory to another; God, through Christ the Son, imparts his glory to his adopted and beloved human sons!