Transfiguring it Out.
And while Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. (Luke 9:29)
Jesus answered, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? (Luke 9:41)
Back then, the Transfiguration of Jesus knocked the disciples’ sandals off.
Today, it’s a tedious special effect. Shine a spotlight, open the camera lens, and everything becomes dazzling white.
But how did Jesus do it without a gaffer and grip? What did it mean? And why was he in such an inclement mood afterwards?
These are the FAQ’s of the Transfiguration. The answers depend on your faith tradition.
According to Luke, the event took place eight days after Jesus revealed himself to his disciples as the “Messiah of God” and charged them to say nothing about it. Together with Peter, James, and John, Jesus climbed a mountain to pray.
No one is sure which mountain, although the Franciscans built the Church of the Transfiguration atop Mount Tabor in Israel, and their guess is as good as anyone’s.
If it was Mount Tabor, a wheezy climb of 1,886 feet was required to get to the summit and the disciples may well have been drenched in sweat and a little light-headed as Jesus began to pray. When the ambient light intensity was magnified around Jesus, Peter may have felt he was passing out.
Luke tells the story:
Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.
They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.
Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” -- not knowing what he said.
While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.
Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. (Luke 9:30-36)
Suddenly awake and perplexed by what he sees, Peter is reduced to gibberish. He convinces himself, at least temporarily, that it would be a good thing to build three grottos around Jesus and the apparitions of Moses and Elijah.
But soon the light fades and Peter returns to his senses, gaping slack-jawed and tongue-tied as the voice of God orders everyone to stand and listen.
The disciples were so stunned, Luke reports, they remained uncharacteristically silent.
What exactly had they seen? And what did it mean?
Most church traditions place enormous significance on the Transfiguration of Jesus. According to many theologians, the event marks a rare occurrence in which a portal to Heaven is opened and Jesus is transformed into a luminous bridge between earth and Heaven. The disciples know it's Heaven because God is there, and when God speaks, the luminosity is so painfully penetrating that a cloud is required to shade the intensity.
The idea of Jesus being a bridge between heaven and earth works fine for Baptists. Jesus is, after all, the gatekeeper who makes it possible for us to pass through to eternal life.
The intriguing notion of a divine bridge between two distant and otherwise unapproachable dimensions also makes some of us faith-based Star-Trek fans wonder: have we encountered an unexpected connection between theology and astrophysics?
Heaven, like star systems millions of light years away, is unattainable without a special means of getting there.
Jesus is the holy wormhole that makes the voyage possible. Hallelujah!
A wormhole, as Star-Trekkers know, is a hypothetical and unobservable phenomenon related to Einstein’s theory of relativity. While no one has ever seen a wormhole, Star-Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, Madeleine L’Engle, and other science fiction doyens posit they exist as a means to traverse vast distances and beggar time itself.
Wormholes are conceived as celestial corridors that enable one (if one is so inclined) to travel vast distances in an instance, as if the fabric of space was folded together like a blanket to unite distant point A with unreachable point B. Star-Trek Deep Space Nine fans will recall that the space station is positioned near the Bajoran wormhole that provides passage to the distant Gamma Quadrant, making it possible for starships to travel to places beyond their reach.
Whatever the science may be, and I hereby stipulate that long-buried New York State Regents records will reveal I understood less than 30 percent of Mr. Palmer’s physics lectures in high school, I find the whole idea wonderfully mysterious and miraculous.
The Transfiguration that revealed Jesus as the bridge between earth and Heaven was a pivotal event in human history, easily more significant than the supposed discovery of wormholes and intergalactic communication.
And the special effects of the Transfiguration were far beyond that which could be duplicated on three-dimensional, high density IMAX screens. As the disciples watched dumbstruck, Jesus began to metamorphose before their eyes and the portal to heaven was opened.
As Jesus stood in the heavenly portico, Moses and Elijah came to his side. For the metaphorical minded, the appearance of the Law Giver and Premier Prophet neatly symbolizes the fact that God’s Son has been elevated over the Law and the Prophets.
But the casual manifestation of two dead guys denotes another theological reality. Contrary to traditional Jewish concepts of Sheol, where the souls of the dead retreat to a semi-conscious existence, Heaven is revealed to be the place where the dead not only continue to live but cavort intelligently and bask in God’s reflected glory.
The presence of Moses and Elijah may be problematical to Christian traditions that believe the souls of the dead sleep, as in a providentially induced coma, until they are raised on the last day, when Jesus comes again. If you believe that, you might have to conclude that because the souls of Moses and Elijah were comatose, their images must be hallucinations in the minds of the apostles.
But to other Christian traditions, it seems illogical that this one aspect of the Transfiguration would be hallucinogenic while all other aspects would be real.
And there is something about the appearance of Moses and Elijah that seems very real.
Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. (Luke 9:31)
According to Luke, the Law Giver and the Prophet talk to Jesus about a topic known to heaven but incomprehensible to his disciples: Jesus’ death and resurrection. It seems hardly likely that the disciples were hallucinating Moses and Elijah or their conversation about what was to come.
And if Moses and Elijah ambled out of Heaven to chat with Jesus, it is convincing forensic evidence that Heaven is occupied by the living souls of humans who have been liberated from their earthly bodies.
The implication is clear: Jesus is the Lord of the living, not the dead.
Of course, Jesus had been trying without success to get that message across to his occasionally obtuse disciples. The Transfiguration offered a glimpse into Heaven rarely seen on this side of the grave: and it was full of the living.
And just to be sure the disciples didn’t miss the message, God put in a cameo appearance behind a cloud:
“Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35)
For Peter, James, and John, the Transfiguration was a stunningly disorienting experience. Luke, a physician, understood that their human brains are poorly equipped to take it all in. That’s why a dazed Peter slipped over the edge of reality to suggest dwellings be constructed for the dazzling troika.
For Peter, James, and John, this is the rapturous “Mountaintop Experience” we humans often seek to compensate for the doldrums of life.
But mountaintop experiences are rare in life. And Peter, James, and John descended from the ecstatic warmth of the mountain to a cold shower of realty in the valley below.
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God. Luke 9:37-43a.
This is the basis for the Christian platitude that one must not seek to spend a lifetime on the blissful mountaintop; real life is lived in an often-stark reality of pain and misery and failure.
Luke’s anecdote tells it like it is. Sometimes we, like the disciples, don’t have enough faith to do what God has called us to do. Sometimes, in fact, we are so faithless we can sense Jesus’ annoyed rebuke: “How much longer must I bear with you?”
That’s what daily life in the dreary valley can be like, and often is.
And that’s why a mountaintop experience, however rare, is so much to be desired. Such experiences renew our faith and keep us going.
That’s why the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mount is one of the most important events in the gospels.
The message of the Transfiguration sets a firm foundation for faith and strengthens our sometimes-beleaguered souls:
Jesus is our bridge to an otherwise unattainable Heaven.
Heaven is the eternal home for the living souls of the faithful.
The passage from earth to heaven is occasionally turbulent and our human failures may leave us wretched and despondent while we wait for the gateway to open.
But the day of our own transfiguration will surely come, as Jesus promised.
And we will all be astounded by the greatness of God.