Those of us who spend a lot of time in church have heard Luke’s account of the transfiguration so often that we may come to think of it as a public event. According to St. Luke, it was not. The event was not for the many, but for the few. And St. Luke allows us to glimpse this epiphany. It is The Epiphany which ends the season, the Epiphany which time and space cannot contain.
St. Luke begins his account, “And it came to pass…” Our modern English translation reads simply, “Now…” But the old King James is far more poetic. “And it came to pass…” Echoes of Christmas Eve! Oh, and more echoes than you might guess, because Luke records the Transfiguration very much like he did the birth of Jesus. “And it came to pass…and, lo…the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the [voice] said unto them, ‘Fear not; for, behold…” Because once again, about 33 years later, here on the mountain of transfiguration there are good tidings of great joy which shall be for all people. But on the face of it, like those shepherds abiding in the fields, the disciples are dumb-founded. They are speechless.
It all begins with Jesus’ desire to pray. Not wanting to pray alone, He took Peter, James and John with Him to the top of “the” mountain. Not “a” mountain, but “the” mountain. Perhaps it means the mountain Jesus often chose when He was in that area.
But more likely it was because every mountain, no matter where it was, was a reminder of The Mountain which loomed so large in the Jewish imagination. Once the people of Israel had seen Mount Sinai shrouded in dark clouds and smoke because of the presence of the Lord, well, every mountain became a reminder of “the” mountain, where they had their fiery, fearful encounter with the living God.
If so, perhaps Peter, James, and John had some inkling that this was not going to be any routine time of prayer. Although, then again, maybe not. Perceptiveness was not exactly high on their list of gifts. But they couldn’t miss what happened next.
While Jesus was praying, He seemed to catch fire from within. His face changed, and His clothes became dazzling white. And then, in the circle of that blinding spotlight, came…not a multitude of the heavenly host glorifying and praising God…but only two figures.
Moses and Elijah “appeared in glory,” St. Luke tells us, which is to say that they too appeared in that white-hot sphere of light which moments before had been the man, Jesus. In that light Moses and Elijah had life. And yet…the topic of their conversation in that light was death, Jesus’ death. No, they didn’t use the word “death” for what was now to take place. Nor did they speak of it as something that would happen to Jesus. St. Luke writes that they spoke of Jesus’ “departure,” which in Greek is the “exodus.” And they spoke of it as something which Jesus would accomplish.
With Moses standing right there, the connection is hard to miss. Jesus, like Moses before Him, is about to set God’s people free. Only this time it would not be bondage to pharaoh from which they needed freeing. This time it was bondage to their own sin and the fear of death, which crippled them and all human beings far worse than any literal chains ever could.
Whenever we get too full of ourselves, get too brave and eloquent in the face of death, it really does takes only a few words of doubt, a few hard knocks, to burst our bubble and send us back to being submissive slaves to our fears and our guilt. So God planned another exodus—in Jerusalem—where the Red Sea of death would be split wide with the staff of the cross in the hands of One greater Moses, who leads His people through.
And Elijah’s presence in that glory is the divine seal of approval on this plan. Elijah was the one whose reappearance meant that Messiah was at hand, that the whole glorious Messianic era was about to dawn. As the prophets foretold, “In the later days the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares…nation shall not lift up sword against nation…and they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid anymore.”
So for the three, Peter, James, John, seeing Elijah standing there and Moses with Jesus, it was like seeing the Mount Rushmore of heaven—the Lawgiver, the Prophet, with Messiah—wrapped in such glory it’s a wonder the three disciples could see at all. But then, suddenly, they couldn’t see anymore, because the cloud swallowed them up. They were swallowed up in God’s glory, except that for them, it became a blinding darkness. And in that darkness…they were speechless!
So in the weeks to come, when Jesus’ “exodus” was under way, when the disciples saw that once shining face bloodied and spit upon, when they saw those once-dazzling clothes torn into souvenir rags for the soldiers…it was as though they were still wrapped in the cloud. Jesus’ face did not shine on the cross. No chariot of fire swooped down to whisk Him safely away. And it wasn’t the enemies of Israel who were drowned that day, but the Israel of one who drowned in the Red Sea of His own blood!
So why did God hide all the glory of the transfiguration mountain, and Moses’ glory and Elijah’s glory, so that no one could see? Why didn’t He bring it all back and more at the cross? Were there no glad tidings of great joy this time?
Ah…to lead our exodus, Jesus had to die like those who died on either side of Him, the one begging to escape what was coming, the other asking only to be remembered when Jesus got to where He was going.
Jesus could not do nothing for the one who wanted to escape. But for the other, in the dark, hidden glory of the cross, Jesus sounds very much like the Christmas angel: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be for all people.” He said, “Today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” Jesus told him…and us…that the darkness is a dazzling thing because He is there. And because He is there, Paradise is in that darkness.
St. Luke allows us into all these scenes of glory…the brilliant glory at Christmas; the blinding, tongue-tied glory of the Transfiguration; the dark, opaque glory of the cross; and at the end Easter’s glory, when Jesus’ disciples continued to be shrouded in darkness. St. Luke lets us intrude on these moments, because he knows, inspired as he is by the Holy Spirit, St. Luke knows that we too need a glimpse of glory to get us through the darkness.
After all, it is a lot to consider: that God’s glorious life includes death, that there is no way around it but only through it. But because Christ goes that way, even the darkness can dazzle.
Oh, such things often leave us speechless. Which is a good thing! Being speechless we are more apt then to hear that voice which speaks within the darkness, “This is My Son…listen to Him!”