As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus said, “Tell no one of the vision until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
How could they not tell of what they had seen? They had witnessed something far beyond the events of normal, everyday life. They had seen something that couldn’t be explained, at least not then. They had seen Moses and Elijah, and Jesus changed, and in that moment were changed themselves, just a little. How could they not tell?
Yet this was good advice from Jesus. They needed time, time to digest what they had experienced. And they needed time, time for subsequent events to happen, time for this experience to be put in context, before it would begin to reveal its meaning.
It is a difficult story for us to get a handle on. It seems so outwith our normal experience. But there are elements which are grounded in what we know. We know about companionship, about communal experience. We know that something experienced together can be so much more powerful than something witnessed alone. And we know that high places can give us a different vantage point, a different perspective on the world from normal.
I’ve never experienced this myself, but I have long wanted to, to climb a mountain through cloud and emerge near the top into sunshine, and look around and see the peaks of other hills floating, as it were in a sea of snow-white cloud. Rather too often, I have experienced the opposite, leaving clear weather in the valley only to climb into fog which obscures all from sight.
It is this sense of clear air and distant views at height, separating off the mountain tops from the valleys and transforming a familiar landscape into something which looks quite different that I long to see. It is that change in perception, seeing something which in that moment is not fully imaginable from the ground that so intrigues me.
That's what the transfiguration of Jesus is about – a glimpse of something that the disciples could not have imagined from the vantage point of their everyday lives.
It was a moment out of time. They had been following Jesus for a while. Some of them, had they been asked, might not have been able to explain why. It seems so unlikely that they would follow just because he said, “Follow me,” or that a man should have left everything behind just because his brother was doing so. There was so little evidence, just a feeling, something, perhaps, like an inner light, drawing people to him. And the years of following had not been straightforward either. There was hardship. There was opposition. There was the difficult process of unlearning all the old expectations of who the Messiah would be and what he would do. There were the spectacular things and the surprising things, but there was no triumph; rather the dark brooding clouds of Jesus’ impending death were gathering. So the disciples, often, were quite uncertain, quite unsure.
But now, three of them were given a vision, a reassurance, but even this was confusing. Even this would take time to understand.
They saw Jesus as they had never seen him. A man they knew so well, now they saw him as unearthly, a confirmation perhaps of Peter’s brave confession – you are the Christ, the son of the living God. And next to him, they saw the two greatest figures of the Old Testament, the only Scripture they knew: Moses, to whom God had given the Law, and into whose care he had entrusted the children of Israel in their escape from Egypt and under whose guidance they had come to understand more fully the nature of their calling as God’s chosen people; and Elijah, the greatest of the prophets. The sight of them confirmed Jesus’ words that he was the fulfilment of the Law and the prophets, that he was the one for whom the children of Israel had been prepared, down through the ages.
With hindsight, with reflection, we can see and understand that, but in that moment, with the light from Jesus’ face and clothes streaming into his eyes, Peter was confused. To be fair on him, he had been on a steep learning curve. When, six days earlier, Jesus had asked, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter had answered, confessing Jesus as the Christ and the son of the living God, Jesus had blessed him and told him that he was going to build the whole community of believers on him, a simple human being. At that moment, Peter can have had little idea of how daunting a task that would be. But Jesus tried to tell him right away what difficulties lay immediately ahead. Though when Jesus spoke of his own imminent death, Peter argued with him, declaring he would never let it happen. He still saw death in terms of defeat and the Messiah as a hero who would conquer. Jesus let rip with some of his harshest words – “Get behind me, Satan!”
On the mountain, Peter struggles for a response. “Let us build some shelters here for you, he offers. His response is both bizarre and mundane. His human instinct is to make some tangible, physical memorial to this experience, to respond, as so many have done since, to an experience of God’s presence, by building a shrine or a church.
But something physical was not in God’s plan, nor Jesus’. A voice, the voice of God, speaks to Peter, James and John, telling them to listen to his beloved Son. Devotion is not to be expressed in building but in hearing and speaking. And, raising them from where they had fallen in terror, Jesus showed them where he wanted his church to be – not in buildings, but in people on the move, walking with him.
It is this walk back down the mountain that provides the connection between the vision and the everyday, between the heavenly and the earthly. Even when a valley is shrouded in cloud and you cannot see the foot of the mountain on which you stand, still you know them to be connected. So it is with this story. The mountain top experience stayed with the disciples as they made their way down, as they lived through the terror of Christ’s passion and death, as they found hope and life reborn in his resurrection and through the gift of his Spirit. It helped them make sense of all these events and it helped them connect their everyday lives with their new calling to lead Christ’s Church and spread his gospel.
And it serves to remind us that all things, the earthly and the heavenly, are connected. It is a story of God sometimes visible but always present. It is a story of revelation sometimes coming unexpectedly but always for a purpose. It is a story of the religious experiences of life connecting with the everyday, making sense and giving strength.