The Transfiguration of Jesus is among the most inspiring and mysterious events in the New Testament. Not even exorcizing fierce demons and feeding multitudes of people could have prepared the disciples Peter, James, and John for seeing Jesus suddenly become blindingly bright. For the disciples, it was quite a “mountaintop” experience, one they wished to prolong indefinitely. We can sense the giddiness of Peter when he suggested making three booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah so that they would have places to live while staying on the mountain for some time. Of course, mountaintop experiences don’t last long and this one was over almost as soon as the disciples realized it was happening.
However, this mountaintop experience has its darker aspects as well. Moses and Elijah spoke to Jesus “of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” This departure was not a business trip or a vacation, but the painful death he was about to suffer. The disciples seemed to brush the matter off, not wanting to spoil the mountaintop experience and when Jesus told his disciples what was going to happen in Jerusalem as soon as they come down from the mountain, they brushed it off again. Like the disciples, we usually prefer not to face the darkness of pain and death until we have to.
But the darkness of pain and death is not all grim. That is precisely what the Transfiguration teaches us. The darkness is surrounded by dazzling brightness that, like the “weight of glory” Paul writes about, is beyond compare with the darkness. First, there is the true brightness with which we are all created. We do not normally perceive this brightness, but the more loving attention we give to the world and the people around us, the more of this brightness we will glimpse and the more the brightness will seep deeply into our selves. More important is the transfigured brightness that is in store for us on the other side of death when we will live with God who created us out of God’s brightness.
The transfigured light of Jesus was closely associated with his death and with us, too, it is most often glimpsed when death is close. I have just recently returned from visiting my brother who is dying. Words spoken in such a situation are weighty to an extent rarely experienced at any other time. As my brother and I shared memories, they all appeared in a new light, a transfigured light, that was palpable; I felt we were on holy ground while sitting in a room in a hospice facility.
On the mountain, the disciples heard a heavenly voice singling Jesus out for special approbation. In his second epistle, Peter says the voice called Jesus his beloved Son. In Luke, the voice says that Jesus was chosen. The two are not exact synonyms but they come close. Jesus is chosen because he is loved; Jesus is loved, therefore he is chosen. The transfigured Jesus in his turn chooses and loves each one of us by comforting us in times of pain and loss and encouraging us to yearn for the deepening light to come.