It is the day of the Transfiguration and four young men climb an unnamed mountain for an encounter with… What exactly?
The Transfiguration is epic and mysterious; Peter, James and John see Jesus’s face shine like the sun, meet Moses and Elijah, hear the voice of God Himself. But what did it all mean, what exactly was Peter experiencing that day?
A moment of beauty, yes, but maybe beautiful like a waterfall, rendering him speechless with awe in the face of majesty, and overwhelming urge to throw himself in, against every thought of self-preservation. The apostles are suddenly thrown into a different world, one in which Heaven and Earth are dancing.
We hear how Jesus is transformed by this moment, but that’s not the whole story. He was fully human, sure, but also fully divine, and here we catch a glimpse of that ultimate reality, both natures wrapped around each other, different spheres of existence locked together in the figure of a thirty-something carpenter.
The Transfiguration is a moment at which the whole scandalous message of the gospel is revealed in its power and beauty: God is present with his people, not living at a sacred distance as he did in the Exodus desert all those years ago, but getting his feet dirty and drinking wine and talking and laughing and dying and rising. His omnipresence becomes more intimate and personal, back when the glory entered the Temple, the priests fell on their faces and saw it as an expression of goodness and love; here three fishermen see all this and realise that it’s personal as well.
And yet this moment isn’t permanent; God’s presence goes on to be seen and felt in other ways. At the height of the experience, Peter wants to build tents for everyone. It sounds a crazy, mundane thing to say, but it echoes the Feast of the Tabernacles and Zechariah’s prophecy that universal celebration of this feast will be a mark of the Messianic age. Maybe Peter thinks that day has finally arrived, God come down to put everything right.
In a sense he’s right; the Messiah is here, and the Now-And-Not-Yet Kingdom is at hand. But it’s not going to be as easy as the Transfiguration may have made him think. Peter doesn’t want to think of his Messiah, his friend, going through pain and death, but there’s another hill still to climb. On that day, the people alongside Jesus will be dying terrorists, not honoured prophets; instead of speaking out loud, God will appear terrifyingly silent. Maybe that’s why here God chooses only to say “This is my Son – listen to him!”. Take the hint guys.
We see something of this at the foot of the mountain. Peter and the others can’t stay up there with Moses and Elijah, and as NT Wright points out, every telling of this story is followed by an encounter with a demon-possessed boy. From the heights of the Transfiguration, the group are brought back down to earth with a bump; there’s no time to contemplate what they’ve just seen before the fear and frustration and busyness and confusion of the ‘real’ world comes crashing into them. And yet even there we see God’s presence; the boy is healed and restored to his family. The beams of light and the ancient heroes may be hidden once more, but God’s presence remains. And now the moments in which the Kingdom breaks through serve to transfigure the world.