The Transfiguration: Unveiled Faces

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How often have we discovered something about someone we think we know very well, and suddenly other aspects of that person and experiences we’ve had with that person now fall into place? “Ahhhhh, so that’s why Fred never wanted to get on the boat – he doesn’t know how to swim. Why didn’t I put that together a long time ago?” Or a couple decides their marriage is unworkable and file for divorce. Suddenly, it all makes sense – the tense moments, the tear-streaked face, the less and less frequent outings as a couple. “I should have realized they were having trouble,” we tell ourselves.

I imagine the disciples went through this very process of piecing things together in the days after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Can you imagine how disoriented they must have felt? It had been a long and confusing ride, from leaving their day jobs when Jesus called them in the sixth chapter of Luke to Jesus being lifted up into the heavens in the twenty-fourth chapter. Everything in-between was a lot for the disciples to wrap their minds around. There was that day when Jesus asked the question: “Who do you say that I am?” “The Messiah,” Peter had blurted out, as he was known for doing. Then Jesus told them all to keep it a secret. From then on the road to Jerusalem was punctuated by times when Jesus told them he would have to die, a prediction that fit nowhere into their understanding of what it meant to be the Messiah and to save the people of Israel. Then the long, difficult week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion – the trial, the betrayal, the death so difficult to watch that they could only witness it from a distance. And after it all, when hope seemed nothing but an ember left over from a flaming fire, the news that Jesus was alive and then the shock of seeing him standing right in front of them. 

On this side of the resurrection, everything makes sense. I can imagine Peter saying to James and John: “Do you remember that day Jesus took us up to the top of the mountain and we saw him there with Moses and Elijah? Do you remember how his face shone and how scared we all were? You know, I never stopped thinking about that day on the mountain.”

I believe the Transfiguration was a gift to the disciples. Dismayed as they were that Jesus was predicting his own death, bewildered as they must have been about what this meant to the Kingdom Movement of which they were a part, the Transfiguration was a reminder of who Jesus was and is – it was an image that would stick in the disciples’ minds and hearts throughout the tough time that lay ahead. They would know deep down that the one who dies on the cross and the one whose face shone with glory is the same person.

Granted Jesus looked a little different on the way down and in the days to follow from the way he looked on the mountain; he was no longer that dazzling white spectacle they had witnessed for a brief moment. In the valley, Jesus’ glory was manifest, instead, in walking a path of love, service, and faithfulness, even if it led to the cross. But he was the very same beloved Son of God – with them on the mountain, with them in the valley. Looking back through the lens of the resurrection, the disciples must have realized that the glory of God had always been there in Jesus of Nazareth, they just hadn’t always recognized it.

In the Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis, the lion Aslan tells his friends and followers:

Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly. I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take care that it does not confuse your mind. And the

signs that you have learned here will not look at all as you expect

them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearance. Remember the signs and believe the signs.[1]

We, too, have mountaintop experiences. They are our Transfiguration experiences – the places we have glimpsed the glory of God, the times we have seen God revealed in our own lives. I believe those times and places are a gift to us every bit as much as the Transfiguration was a gift to the disciples. They give us strength and hope to make it through the hard times of our lives – they help us remember that Jesus is always right here with us, even though we can’t see him quite as clearly as we did on the mountaintop.  

Today we baptize Hope. It is a Transfiguration moment. As we pour water over her head and make the sign of the cross on her forehead with oil, we see the truth underlying all that is – the truth that she (like each of us) is a child of God, the truth that she (like every other person) is cradled in God’s heart. This is the deepest truth of all.

But Hope won’t stay in this mountaintop experience forever. Hope has, we pray, a very long life ahead of her – full of all the beautiful, painful, joyful, sad, excruciatingly hard, and carefree moments that make up a human life lived in the valley. There will be times when the air is thick and cloudy, when it will be hard for Hope to see clearly. Just as happens to all of us, there will be times when Hope forgets who and whose she is. It will then be our job, as her church family, to remind her of this day and of the deepest truth of who she is – to lift up the veil and reveal her as she is, a dazzling and beloved child of God. It will be our job to hold this truth for her until she herself learns to recognize it even in the darkest of valleys.

This is the role of the Church in the world – to be a reminder that each and every person is a child of God, and to proclaim this most loudly in the valley where the air is thick and we can’t see clearly. To be light and hope and love in places of poverty, war, prejudice, suffering, illness, incarceration, unemployment, deportation, hunger, and fear. May our own Transfiguration moments glow so brightly in our hearts that we find the strength and courage and grace to be, for others, light that shines in dark places.

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair, (New York: HarperCollins, 1981), 25-26.  As quoted in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, editors David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 454.

The Transfiguration: Unveiled Faces
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