One of the excellent Lenten meditation books says,
“Transfiguration is about Jesus and about us. When we are with him, we are divine. When he is with us, he is human. His love, grace, sacraments, peace, and compassion transfigure us.” (Sacred Space for Lent 2014)
The balance of the heavenly vision and the responsibility we have to make a difference on earth is always difficult to maintain. In the Synoptic stories of the Transfiguration the bright, white light often drowns out the word we are required to hear and listen to that comes in Matthew 17:5.
Of the Synoptic Gospels the Matthew account seems to unscramble some of the complications one reads in Mark and Luke (Matthew 17:1-13; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36). The Matthew story of the Transfiguration places a challenge before us and gives us an assurance that God awaits us during Lent 2014. In some sense we are cautioned not to let our eyes be blinded by the light of the transfiguration.
Matthew accomplishes this by clearly binding the transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8) with the report of coming down from the mountain (Matthew 17:9-13). The disciples’ question in Matthew 17:10 clearly ties back to the appearance of Elijah.
Sermons on the Transfiguration focus on the brilliant whiteness of the face, the clothing, and the bright cloud that seems to overshadow everything. The history of the art surrounding this scene seems always to focus on the intensity of the bright white light.
However, I think it is less the intensity of the light and more the intensity of the conversation that we need to listen to carefully. The focus in Matthew is on audition and not vision.
First, in Matthew Peter’s suggestion to set up tents or build huts or dwelling places after seeing God on a mountain seems odd. Matthew’s account retains Peter’s suggestion but ignores it. Mark and Luke observe, “Peter didn’t know what he was saying!”
Second, at the center of Matthew’s account is the voice that appears in Matthew 17: 5–6 not the brightness of the light. These words are followed by a conversation that the vision generated in Matthew 17:7-13. The conversation following the Transfiguration begins with a question from the disciples about the Jewish expectation of the return of Elijah. Jesus’ answer first confirms the Jewish expectation with words from Malachi 4:5-6.
Then Jesus interprets Malachi in his own words on the basis of what has actually happened (Matthew 17:12a, b) assuring them that Elijah has already come. As the text says John the Baptist represented that figure of Elijah. Jesus adds an announcement of the suffering of the Son of Man (Matthew 17:12c).
The heavenly voice we hear on the mountain in Matthew 17:5 is identical to what is spoken at Jesus baptism (Matthew 3:17).
Our Matthew text looks back to Jesus and God’s confirming Jesus sonship at the baptism. It also looks forward to the scene in Gethsemane, Jesus passion, and the Easter story, essentially Holy Week. Words and phrases in our text are repeated in those three stories that anticipate Holy Week.
So we have a word of assurance not to fear and to look forward to Gethsemane where the disciples fail Jesus, Jesus passion, and the powerful Easter story.
Our story in Matthew is of the chosen one, the one who listens, who suffers, and who rises. The disciples need to listen to Jesus. The note to listen In Matthew 17:5 is as it were pointing down from the mountain to the earth. After the “high point” on the mountain in the Transfiguration scene the three disciples will not appear together again until the Gethsemane scene.
Putting up those buildings on the mountain is really an inappropriate response. Matthew does not want us to think heavenly beings should reside on the mountain (in heaven?). God’s voice must be spoken on earth. We are assured in Matthew’s Gospel that we must take the religious experiences on the mountain into everyday life and suffering.
If God had not become like us, who among us could endure the God who breaks out from above, and who could endure his brilliant white light here on earth?
This Lent we have been given a word of assurance from Mathew’s Gospel. Remember the mountain but come down and get mired in the dirty world. Have a conversation with your enemy. Help someone with their need. Don’t be blinded by the dazzling white cloths. Continue to have a conversation with God. Don’t let God feel abandoned.
Lent is not about giving up something but taking up something for others. That is where heaven and earth meet now, today. Are you ready? You have been given the equipment to be ready.
*Graphic is from the Basilica of Sant" Apollinare in Classe