The Transfiguration has long been one of my favorite moments given to us in the Life of Christ in the Gospels. It’s a moment when the curtain between heaven and earth is drawn back, where we can peer briefly into the glory of God as revealed in Jesus Christ and his life among us, and be in awe at God’s majesty in the midst of a dark world.
That has particularly been on my mind in the last week: What is the meaning of the Transfiguration for us today, as the world around us descends into war and bloodshed?
Let’s start with the Gospel account of this event.
Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain, and while he is there, his appearance changes: His face and his clothes are wrapped up in glory. And not only that, but next to him appear Moses and Elijah: The one who was given the Law and Teaching of God for the people, and the foremost prophet in Jewish tradition.
A week ago I was talking with a parishioner about this reading for today’s Gospel, and that got me thinking how to answer the question? Why does this happen, and why does Luke (as well as the other Gospel authors) include this story?
I think there are three clues to this: One from before our reading this morning, one in the middle of it, and one after our reading.
You’ll see that this is from the ninth chapter of Luke, which has a notable change in the narrative for Jesus that starts in verse 22 where Jesus tells his disciples for the first time: The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed, and on the third day be raised to life.
Prior to this in Luke’s Gospel, there is no hint or inclination for the disciples that there is anything other than good and joyous and miraculous things in store, no shade of trouble and strife to come. There’s some resistance to Jesus’ work and teachings, but Jesus has always been able to prevail and come out unharmed by it.
But for the first time, they hear that there is trouble ahead, and that Jesus’ work is about more than just what they’ve seen so far.
This, then, makes sense of the conversation Jesus has with Moses and Elijah, where we are told that they were speaking of his departure, or his death, that he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. But the word in Greek is not death: it is “exodus.” Exodus, which in another part of our Bibles refers to deliverance from slavery and death to freedom and life. Exodus from Egypt and into that beautiful land promised to Abraham and his descendents.
And once Jesus and his disciples depart there and come down from the mountain, it’s not long before we read this, in verse 51: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” While it sounds innocent enough, from the context we know what the implications are for Jesus when he arrives in Jerusalem. As we’ve already read, that he will be rejected by the chief priests and the elders and the teachers of the law, and be put to death.
So, why the transfiguration? I believe it’s because sometimes we need a little extra hope in this life, that in the face of fear and pain and suffering, that there is still good in this world, and that God is still with us and for us.
I used to believe that the Incarnation meant that Jesus’ divinity prevented him from suffering or facing doubt and uncertainty in the same way that we do. Take the temptation in the wilderness, for example, that sure it must have been difficult to go so many days without eating, but… he was Jesus. He could handle it. He had seen behind the curtain because he created that curtain.
Today, however, I think that Jesus’ humanity meant that he truly, fully experienced what we do, and that the Transfiguration on that holy mountain served to strengthen him and his resolve to do what he knew awaited him. And not him only, but also for Peter, James, and John, who were witnesses to his glory as his appearance changed and Moses and Elijah appeared in front of them.
So what does this have to do with Ukraine and Russia and the outbreak of war? I think we see it immediately prior to the Transfiguration. There’s one paragraph that appears between Jesus foretelling his death as we discussed before and Jesus going up the mountain. It reads thus:
“Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?”
There’s more, but that is enough. “What does it profit a person if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?”
That’s what this great evil is that we have seen this week: a striving after the wind to gain the whole world. And at what cost? Bloodshed, violence, oppression, the destruction of life and property, and suffering. There is no good that can come from such things as this, only pain.
What does it profit a person if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?
These are not the things that make for peace and life. These are not the things that our God has called us to do in the life set after Jesus. Rather, we are to be lovers of peace, and mercy, and justice. Of kindness and compassion. To stand up against oppression and violence and to pursue goodness and life and blessing for all.
So it is incumbent on us to do our part in this world and in this day and age to live our what we say in our baptismal covenant: To continue in the apostles’ teaching and breaking of bread; to resist evil and turn to the Lord; proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; to seek and serve Christ in all people; and to strive for justice and peace among all people.
So may we, beholding by faith the light of the countenance of Christ, be strengthened to bear our cross, and to be changed into Christ’s likeness, as we have told about that day on that Holy Mountain.