And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"--not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. -Luke 9:28-36
In this moment, it seems that the disciples became convinced of something. They saw something—the glory of God—they couldn’t understand, but then, they also suddenly knew something. Now, just eight days before, Peter had “confessed that Christ is Lord”—that is, he said something true in words about the being of Christ. But now, he sees. And seeing it, he grasps for a response in words.
William James, near the end of his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, concludes “Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late.”
This is something the poet James Wright knew very well. Here’s his poem, “Lying in a Hammock on William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.”
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
Here, the speaker’s gaze takes in the landscape, the beauty and wonder of the scene. And then, in this “living act of perception,” suddenly he knows something.
This sort of experience, this mystery, is what Transfiguration Sunday’s Collect points us towards. We pray, “Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.” The disciples, seeing the glory of God in Christ’s face, seeing Christ’s beauty and majesty as they had not seen it before—the disciples were changed, somehow. Strengthened. Changed. Peter’s hasty wordy response may not have been perfect—he may have been grasping with words at the “something which glimmers and twinkling and will not be caught”—He couldn’t catch it, but he’d been changed.
St. Paul says that “seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror,” we are “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” In the Church, we’ve got a name for this: “sanctification,” the lifelong process in which we are drawn closer and closer into the light of God, passing through and into the refiner’s fire, casting off what doesn’t belong to God and holding onto glory after glory of his presence.
The Transfiguration suggests to us that this process doesn’t always happen in words or ideas. As William James says, “truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation.” When we see God’s glory, we are changed. And we can see God’s glory everywhere, can’t we? We see it in the beauty of the natural world; in the bravery of our heroes; in the love, gentle and fierce, that we have for one another; in the way adults love children, and children love adults; in the rise and fall of the cello suites by Bach; in the way light falls through stained glass windows; in the love of friends for each other. In all of these things, we come face to face with the glory and love of God; and suddenly, we know something.
But the story of the Transfiguration doesn’t end in that one moment, in that gaze between the individual and God. Remember what happens next—Peter, having perceived something true, makes a gesture towards responding to it in the way he believes fit—and a terrifying cloud surrounds Christ and all the disciples, and God’s voice says, “Listen to Him.” And this is where this particular episode ends, on that deceptively simple command: “Listen to Him.”
After we’ve seen the glory of God, our work isn’t done. As we make responses, reaching with words and actions for that glimmer of what we’ve perceived, we must also listen to what God is saying to us in the voices of others. God speaks in the Scriptures, and in the traditions of the Church. When we listen carefully to these things, we listen to Christ.
This back and forth—between beholding the face of God, and listening to the Spirit with others—is part of what sanctification looks like in the Church. This is one way we come closer to God.
When have you seen the glory of God?How do you listen to Christ?