Since all three cycles of the Lectionary make “The Transfiguration” scene the Gospel for this Sunday, let’s try to talk about it here—although surely in vain, since this is one of those passages that refuses to be “talked about,” as Jesus himself commands when they descend from their mountaintop experience. It is surely an archetypal and mystical account. The details are all in place. Taking ordinary people “up a mountaintop by themselves,” sleepy men are about to be awakened. The stage is fully set for encounter and for divine intimacy. The “apparition” includes the two symbolic figures of Judaism—the law and the prophets—and the two halves of life—Moses and Elijah. Then Jesus appears between them “in dazzling white” that is always the inclusion of everything, all colors, as it were.
In seeing the reconciling third one, Jesus, the other two disappear. He synthesizes and moves beyond all dualisms. After this awesome and consoling epiphany, there is clear mention of “a cloud that overshadows” everything. We have what appears to be full light, yet there is still darkness. Knowing, yet not knowing. Getting it, and yet not getting it at all. Isn’t that the very character of all true Mystery and every in-depth encounter?
The verbal messages are only two: “Beloved Sonship” and “Don’t talk about it.” Clearly Peter, James, and John experienced Jesus’ beloved sonship, but also their own—in being chosen for such a mountaintop moment. Peter’s response is the response of everyman and everywoman, “How good it is to be here!” yet it also expresses an emotion that is described as being “overcome with fear or awe”—exactly what Lutheran theologian Rudolf Otto called the “mysterium tremendum,” wondrous fascination and attraction together with a stunning sense of one’s own littleness and incapacity, both at the same time! That is what holy moments always feel like: I am great beyond belief and I am a little dot in the universe.
This experience only needs to happen once, just as it did for Peter, James, and John. That is enough. It will change everything. It is available to all, and I believe, offered to all, at one time or another. You cannot program it, but you can ask for it and should expect it. You will never be able to talk about it, nor do you need to. Your ordinary shining life, different now down in the valley, will be its only and best proof.
“Peter, and those with him, had fallen into a deep sleep, but on being awakened, they saw his glory. . . . And Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, how good it is to be here. Let me build three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He really did not know what he was saying, a cloud came and overshadowed them all.” —Luke 9:32–34
“Jesus, are such experiences just about you or are they also about us? Do you want us to think higher of you, or higher of ourselves because of you? Why do you take us along on such journeys at all?”