Transfiguration: A Preview of the Resurrection
Six days after foretelling his death, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John and "leads them up a high mountain, by themselves" (Matthew 17:1). Together with Peter's brother, Andrew, these three disciples have been with Jesus the longest of any of his followers, ever since Jesus called them away from their fishing nets alongside the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 4:18).
On top of the mountain, Peter recognizes that Jesus' dazzling appearance in the presence of Moses and Elijah is significant--"Lord, it is good for us to be here!"--but he does not fully understand what he is seeing. His suggestion to build three booths, or dwelling places, sounds like an attempt to capture the moment, to preserve it for safekeeping, to domesticate this wild, frightening experience into an everyday, household encounter. One might imagine Peter, jumping up and down with his hand in the air, like an elementary student who is desperate to give the right answer, but who cannot quite get it right because he does not fully understand the question.
In his attempt to make sense of the magnificent transformation taking place before his eyes, Peter tries to talk it out, to speak words for the unspeakable. Indeed, while he is still speaking, a bright cloud overshadows all of them and a voice interrupts his speech: "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him." (Matthew 17:5).
Jesus speaks to Peter and the others, "Get up and do not be afraid (Matthew 17:7). His touch is a sign of comfort and healing (Matthew 8:3, 15; 9:29; 20:34), and his words reassure that whatever happens next will be in God's hands, no matter how frightening the circumstances (Matthew 1:20; 10:26; 28:5, 10).
The dazzling appearance of Jesus reflects Daniel's apocalyptic Son of Humanity (NRSV "Son of Man," Daniel 7:9; Revelations 1:12-16; 3:4-5) and previews the appearance of the angel at the empty tomb (Matthew 28:3). It is a powerful vision, rich with meaning, but the time is not yet right for the three disciples to tell others about their experience (Matthew 9:1). Even as a preview of the resurrection, the Transfiguration cannot be fully grasped until after Jesus has been crucified, laid in a tomb, and raised from the dead. Then and now, the full meaning of a mountaintop experience may not become clear until after the return to the valley, after the passage of time.
In the Transfiguration, Jesus' clothes shine with the glory of God; at the crucifixion, the soldiers gamble over his garments. In the Transfiguration, Jesus is surrounded by Moses and Elijah: at the cross by two criminals. In the Transfiguration, Jesus is declared to be "God's Son" by the voice of God from the cloud; at the crucifixion the words "He said, 'I am God's Son'" become a taunt of mockery on the lips of the religious authorities. At the end of the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah have departed, leaving Jesus to stand in singular glory; at the end of the crucifixion, Jesus dies in humiliation while the crowd stands around waiting to see "whether Elijah will come to save him." In both events, three of Jesus' followers are specified as witnesses -- the Transfiguration by Peter, James, and John, and the crucifixion by Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, and Solome, the mother of Zebedee's sons. The parallels suggest that we are to read one story in the light of the other, anticipating in the shining splendor of the Transfiguration the suffering by which this glory will be won and discerning in the shame of the cross the very glory of God.
I think that the account of Jesus' Transfiguration needs to become our transformation -- not that we are to shine like Jesus, but that we are to be transformed in our thinking about Jesus, about his mission and our mission to the world. In contrast to that section on the Sermon on the Mount where the church is pictured as a city lit up and shining on a hill, those who have been transformed and "enlightened" by Jesus know the need to come down from the hill, to be the human presence of Jesus to fearful people -- offering the touch of new life to help the cowering to stand tall.