Sunday’s Gospel finds us atop a mountain for the Transfiguration. Each of the Synoptic Gospels contain an account of the Transfiguration but Luke’s account has two features not in Matthew’s and Mark’s that are notable.
The first is that Luke alone provides the content of the conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. The second feature is that the disciples, Peter, James, and John, are said to have “been overcome by sleep” during the conversation but eventually become fully awake and see the glorified Jesus and the two men with him.
Luke’s disclosure concerning the conversation is highly significant. He says that Moses and Elijah were speaking of Jesus’ exodus which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. They speak of Jesus’ exodus from this world through his suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension. That exodus can only happen in accord with what Jesus himself had predicted when he said, just prior to this passage, that he must suffer, be killed, and be raised on the third day.
The emphasis throughout the Transfiguration is on the dazzling manifestation of Jesus’ identity. Luke writes that “His face changed in appearance”. This change in Jesus’ face is reminiscent of Moses’ face becoming radiant upon experiencing the presence of God on Mt. Sinai, of which we read about in Exodus 34:29-35. Luke then notes that Jesus’ clothing became dazzling white. The description of the change in Jesus’ clothes distinguishes him from Moses significantly. Jesus’ transformed appearance is not merely because he is experiencing God’s glory (like Moses) but rather because he is the very source of divine glory.
The most dramatic attestation of Jesus’ identity comes from the voice of God. The basic message echoes the divine words spoken at Jesus’ baptism, but there are notable differences:
- The message at Jesus’ baptism was spoken directly to Jesus (“You are my beloved son”), but here the message is for the disciples’ ears (“This is my son”).
- At the baptism the adjective describing Jesus’ sonship was “beloved” — again, a message directed to Jesus — but here it is “chosen,” further describing Jesus’ relationship to God from the disciples’ perspective.
- The message of Jesus’ sonship here is given with an imperative: “Listen to him!”
- Whereas the voice at baptism came “from heaven,” here it comes from the very cloud in which the disciples were enveloped. This suggests an intense experience of God’s intimate presence. And again, it is reminiscent of Moses’ own experience of God’s presence at Sinai, the most formative revelation of God in the history of Israel.
Another significant detail of the story, unique to Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, is that it occurs in the context of prayer. Neither Matthew nor Mark mention that Jesus had gone up on the mountain specifically to pray and neither mention that Jesus was praying when the Transfiguration occurs. It is clearly a point that Luke wants us to note. Prayer is, in fact, a significant theme throughout Luke’s writings. Luke is the only Gospel author to tell us of Jesus praying on other occasions.
While we may not expect to have an intense prayer experience like Jesus, the Transfiguration challenges us to seek something higher in prayer and to take time out to pray; to listen. It is important to step back from our busy lives to take a break and slow down to give ourselves the opportunity to recognize the presence and action of God in our lives. As Ferris Bueller philosophized: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Maybe the sleepiness of the disciples who were with Jesus for this epiphany is emblematic of how often they had missed the glory of Jesus when it shined right in front of them, day in and day out throughout Jesus’ ministry. Jesus did not need to visibly “glow” to display glory. His glory shined—for those with eyes to see—just as brightly when he talked to lepers, when he included wayward tax collectors, and offered forgiveness to people who had never heard a forgiving word in their lives up to that point. The glory was there and is still there today if only we don’t sleep through it!
If we find it odd that the disciples kept silent about what they witnessed then perhaps we might turn the question around to ourselves and wonder why we keep silent about the great and glorious truths of the Gospel that we celebrate in Church on Sunday but then fail to mention in the week that follows.
And if it seems odd to hear God the Father follow up this visual display with an admonition that has to do with listening and not looking, maybe it is because we, too, are often overly fixated on outward fame and power and glory as the world defines all those things that it gets in the way of our truly listening to what Jesus says about humility, sacrifice, and service.
Lent is an invitation to become fully awake to our Lord’s glory which breaks in all around us.
As we make our way down Transfiguration mountain and continue the Lenten journey to the cross, let us remember: the voice from Heaven is still saying, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”