'Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”'
--Matthew 17: 1-9
Where is your Mount Tabor? That’s the name of the mountain in the Palestinian desert that is historically regarded as the site of Jesus’ Transfiguration, where he shone in resplendent light while conversing with Moses and Elijah. It is a moment when Israel’s past, present, and future collide, a truly holy moment, one that Peter is so taken by that he unwittingly blurts out, “This is awesome! Let’s build tents and stay here!” The glory, the goodness, the very light of God is revealed on that mountain in that moment. Where is your Mount Tabor?
Mount Tabor, as it is seen from a road not unlike the one Jesus and his disciples would have walked.
Where is the place where you have encountered the light of God shining with such raiment, so powerful that you have to squint in order to bear it? I’ve shared with some of you on this blog that I grew up on a mountain. I would often walk around the strip mining job site behind our house, and overlooking the gap in the mountain below I would somehow feel this closeness, this connection to God, where all seemed to be at peace, and I knew that all manner of things would be well.
But as I have also shared, I came down from that mountain, and I believe very much that one of the lessons that the story of the Transfiguration has to teach us is that we do have to come down from those mountaintop experiences. We have to travel into the gap, facing whatever perils and fears we may find. All the while we may wish we could get back to that shining mountain top.
The story of the Transfiguration, though, is sandwiched between two moments in which Jesus’ followers are faced with the reality of his impending death—as they travel on the road toward Mt. Tabor Jesus rebukes Peter for insinuating that his death can and should be prevented, and immediately after they come down the mountain Jesus reminds them that, like John the Baptist before him, he too must suffer and die at the hands of the religious and political establishment, as he sets his face toward the long journey to Jerusalem, which, as we all know, will end at the cross. Clearly, there is something to be said for such a holy, beautiful encounter occurring when it does, both in the Scriptures and in our own church calendar.
Every year on the final Sunday prior to the start of the season of Lent, we hear this story, albeit from a different Gospel each time. This week marks the beginning of our penitential season, in which we recall Jesus’ own fasting, temptation, suffering, and death, while at the same time pondering our own mortality. At no point in our Lenten journey is this made clearer than at the beginning, when on Wednesday we mark our foreheads with ashes and the words, ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ Yet as we embark on this, our own journey that will end at the foot of the cross, it’s appropriate for us to hear this story once again, a story of ordinary, flawed people getting a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven, a story that reminds us that the journey is not all gloom and doom.
How beautiful is this moment of the transfigured Jesus conversing with the Moses the Law-Giver and Elijah, greatest among the prophets, shining in such a way that not only is he gleaming, but so are the rocks, the dirt, the trees, and those three frightened disciples! It is stunning and mysterious also because of its paradox—the conversations about the inevitability of Jesus’ death that both precede and succeed this moment. Here we have an occasion that is truly significant for us today, one that illustrates how we experience moments of elation sandwiched between a harsh reality, and recalls for us how we live in the constant tension between the highest mountaintop and the lowest valley, a tension that reminds us that darkness and light, death and life, belong together.
That is not to suggest that suffering is to be romanticized, far from it. Jesus’ own suffering is tragic in every sense of the word, as is the suffering that we endure each day. Yet, the Transfiguration is a pledge, God’s commitment to resurrection, a foreshadowing, if your will, of the promise that each of the various roads to Jerusalem that every faithful disciple takes is, in fact, a glorious road to life.
Yet like the Resurrection itself, the Transfiguration is a moment that only really gains its meaning in hindsight. Peter, James, and John, clearly have no idea what’s going on. They’re dumbfounded and terrified. They make foolish suggestions that they don’t really understand. In the moment they, like us, cannot bear the awesome reality in front of them. And what is that reality? That Jesus and all the creation around him were always shining that way, and it was only on that occasion that those three disciples had the eyes to see. Every now and then we have those same eyes—this is why the term ‘mountaintop experience’ doesn’t just reference times when we are close to God by way of altitude, but by means of our hearts being strangely warmed by God’s resplendent light. We often kick ourselves because we only notice these moments in hindsight, but think for a moment about how Jesus responds to those three disciples. He doesn’t chastise them for making stupid suggestions or for not understanding the importance of the moment. What does he do? He does the same thing he does to the leper, to the two blind men, and to Peter’s own mother-in-law: he touches them, and then he speaks words of reassurance. Even when we impatient, confused disciples of his miss the point, and even when we don’t fully grasp the significance of the moment when we are in it, he meets us with the same amazing grace. Jesus touches us and reassures us that, like Peter, James, and John, we have that same resplendent light shining all around us, all the time. Though we walk through the darkest, longest valleys, though we must often go to our own Jerusalem, bear our own cross, and even die to it, that same light that shone on the mountaintop still shines in the mountain’s gaps, and the road we travel is paved by the footsteps of Jesus, who has gone on ahead of us.
Writer Frederick Buechner, talking about the Transfiguration, once said: “Even with us something like that happens once in a while. The face of a man walking with his child in the park, of a woman baking bread, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it's almost beyond bearing.” It does still happen, brothers and sisters. And it very often happens at the unlikeliest of times and in the unlikeliest of places, and yes, even among the unlikeliest of people: Peter, James, John, you, and me.
So where is your Mount Tabor? Maybe it’s an actual mountaintop, but could it be someplace a bit more unlikely? Could it be the hospice or hospital room? Could it be inside the prison gate? Could it be on the side of the road, when we break down and curse our rotten luck? The Transfiguration invites us to consider the crazy idea that God’s light did not just shine on and around Jesus that day, but that it still shines all around, within, and from each and every one of us, each and every day. We need only have eyes to see.