Mountains are holy places. They are high places, where the earth and heavens seem to touch. The air is clearer, thinner, invigorating. We are closer to the brightness of the sun during the day and the illuminating array of stars at night. On mountaintops we gain perspective. We go to the mountains to retreat from the craziness of our daily lives. We are able to see more clearly whence we have come and what lies ahead. Mountains are holy places.
It is no wonder that mountains figure so prominently in the Bible as places where people meet God. In Exodus, Moses goes to the mountain in Sinai to receive the law, and it is on another mountaintop that Moses sees the Promised Land just as he is about to die. In First Kings, Elijah, the great prophet and forerunner of the messiah, goes to the holy mountain to hear the still small voice of God in the sheer silence of the mountain pass. And today, in our gospel reading, it is on the mountaintop that Jesus is transfigured before his inner disciples – Peter, James, and John. Matthew tells us that Jesus’ face shines like the sun, his clothes become dazzling white, and that the voice of his father comes out of the heavens, telling all who are there that this is his beloved Son, with whom He is pleased.
Moses and Elijah are there too. At the outset of the Sermon on the Mount, earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had told his disciples that he had come not to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them. We now can see what he means, as Jesus stands in the company of Moses and Elijah, the iconic representatives of the Law and the Prophets. At first, they are all together, God’s three chosen messengers, but only Jesus is transfigured, only Jesus is claimed as the beloved Son, and as the story closes, only Jesus remains standing.
Peter does what most of us might do in the face of this awesome disclosure of divine truth and beauty. He wants to capture the moment. He wants to make a memorial. He wants to build a house, a tabernacle. He knows, as he says, that it is “good for him to be here.” And so, he wants more than anything to make a place where he can always go to be with God, just as the Israelites wandered the wilderness carrying with them the Ark of the Covenant, making a tent of meeting where they could always reliably encounter God. It is such a human thing to do and to want.
But it is in the midst of Peter saying these things that God interrupts him, as if to say: your job is not to fence my beloved Son in, so that you can keep him for yourself and your friends. Rather, your job is to listen to this beloved Son of mine and to follow him. His destiny is not to stay safely in place, but to venture down the mountain into the world.
Importantly, the Transfiguration story in Matthew comes immediately after Jesus’ first passion prediction to his disciples, when he first tells them that he must go to Jerusalem to undergo great suffering, even to the point of death, and then on the third day to be raised. The disciples refuse to believe this, of course, but Jesus rebukes them, and says that if they truly want to be his followers, they too must take up their cross and follow.
It is hardly surprising, then, that when the Father’s own voice comes from the heavens confirming that this Teacher of theirs is indeed the beloved Son to whom they must listen, the disciples are overcome with fear and fall to the ground. Again, how utterly human: hearing God himself speak, seeing his radiant Son, and being told they must listen and follow, the disciples become afraid and fall.
But then comes one of the most tenderly beautiful moments in all of the gospels. Jesus approaches the fallen disciples, reaches out, and touches them. Don’t be afraid, he says. And he invites them to get up. Except the Greek is not just “get up” – it’s “be raised,” the same word used later by the angel at the tomb to describe Jesus’ resurrection.
For this reason, some commentators have called this scene a “displaced resurrection story”: the dazzling white, the invitation to be raised, the injunction to fear not. The Transfiguration parallels the resurrection scene except here it is not Jesus’ resurrection but that of the disciples, as they are pulled from their fear and failure to new life and courage. And notice that Jesus doesn’t, at least at this moment, rebuke them for their failure, or call them to repentance, or grant them forgiveness. Rather, like a loving parent, when he sees that they have fallen, he reaches out, raises them up, calms their fears, and sends them forth into life restored and renewed.
Each year we hear the Transfiguration story on this last Sunday of Epiphany. It is the quintessential “epiphany” story, gathering up the various themes we have been exploring these past many weeks: themes of light, of God’s illuminating presence in the world, and of the fulfillment of the law and the prophets in the Incarnation. Yet, the story also looks forward, as we have just heard, to Lent: to the call to follow Jesus into the world, to bear its pain and suffering, and to journey to and through the Cross, to the glorious resurrection that awaits on the other side of Easter. Transfiguration Sunday is one of those “hinge days” in the liturgical year, that looks both backwards to where we have come and forward to where we are headed, as if we too were on a mountaintop.
As we pause this Sunday to prepare ourselves for the Lenten journey that awaits us, I invite you to pray on this story, and especially the promise of its beautiful ending. To listen to Jesus, and to follow him, is hard stuff. And were we left to our own devices, it is almost certain that we too would stumble and fall, trembling with fear. But it is precisely in these moments of self-doubt and failure that Jesus is most present to us, if only we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Look for his radiant presence. Listen for his voice. Feel his touch. Take his hand and let him raise you up, so that together we might follow him without fear, filled with a peace that passes all understanding. Amen.