Transfigurations, at least in the Bible, apparently involve light and silence. On the mountain with his disciples, Jesus appears “dazzling white.” Jesus tells the disciples not to speak of this event to anyone.
Paired with Jesus’ utter transformation is that of Elijah who, although a human prophet, is whisked into the heavens without dying. And just as with those who witness Jesus’ transifiguration, along the way to the place where the whirlwind will take Elijah aloft, his apprentice, Elisha, tells onlookers not to say anything about what is about to happen.
Light and silence both take their place in these noteworthy moments of epiphany. In both stories, the mantle is passed.
Mark 9:2-9 and 2 Kings 2:1-12
Jesus stands on the mountain brightly lit with the two major pillars of faith: Moses and Elijah. Jesus is, indeed, among highly select company. The message this carries? He is to be revered as are these figures who represent the law and the prophets.
As we come to the end of the season of ordinary time after the Epiphany, the scripture stops us abruptly with anything but the ordinary. Here is another epiphany, a manifestation or showing forth of God in Christ. This is the most vivid such manifestation in the gospels, prior to the resurrection, if you set aside the epiphany of the angels of the incarnation. This manifestation can be seen as a foretaste of the resurrec- tion appearances, and perhaps a sample of the vision of God that we anticipate seeing, as St. Paul tells us, not ‘‘in a mirror, dimly,’’ but ‘‘face to face.’’
As Christians today, we stand on the other side of provable fact. We wouldn’t have gotten this far without understanding this. Beginning with the ‘‘un-ordinariness leading up to the incarnation, reason bursts the boundaries of how we discern the working of the world. And the power that formed creation, that omnipotent power, chose to limit power to become like us, a human being, whose love isn’t to be proved by worldly standards, but through surprising interaction which results in healing, new character formation, freedom from bondage, ability to love even one’s enemies.’’ [quoting Madeleine L’Engle]
. . . Thus we stand on the mountain with the disciples, unsure of what to make of this glowing god before us, but pretty sure that it is a moment of revel- ation of greatness and power, the culmination of the Law and Prophets. Seeing this confirmation of the past in the present guides us to acknowledge a future where any darkness faced will be ringed with the light of this moment. With that vision, we can face whatever comes our way, not with certainty or proof, but with a life-affirming story that gives light to our path.
– Sara Webb Phillips
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Whereas light and blinding brilliance describe the identity of Jesus as God’s Son and of Elijah’s special treatment, in a twist of imagery, the writer of this letter uses the metaphor of blinded minds to describe unbelievers. Their veiled understanding keeps them from seeing the “light of the gospel.” God is the one who shines in the heart “to give light.” All others will remain as those who “are perishing.”
In a sermon at First United Methodist Church in Evanston, Illinois in 2002, Dean Francis brought the Transfiguration to life with a meditation on that oft-heard phrase about having a “come to Jesus meeting.” Saying it is his favorite expression, Francis notes a problem in it.
In an unusual way by seeing Jesus solely as the one that we go to, we are enabled to manage our relationship with him in a way that doesn’t cause too much confusion, doubt or change. Jesus doesn’t show up as an unexpected guest for dinner. He doesn’t come knocking on the office door while we are doing our taxes. Because after all he doesn’t come to us, we go to him. Yet it is in the Transfiguration that we see the full picture of Jesus. We see God in glory, as flesh transfigured, and then we realize—Jesus comes to us. Jesus, sweet heavenly dove, is one of us. In this moment on the mountainside, the divinity cannot be contained, and bursts forth so bright, the gospel writer could only think of the image of clothes so bright that ‘‘no one on earth could bleach them’’ (v 3). It’s not all about us managing our relationship to Jesus; it is Jesus appearing yet again to shatter our preconceptions.
Sara Webb Phillips is a United Methodist pastor serving North Springs UMC in Sandy Springs, Georgia.
Homily Service 39, no. 3 (2006): 35-46.