A. Baptism, Transfiguration, Trinity and Death
1. The Transfiguration is a significant midsummer feast that we highlight by moving to the following Sunday. It has parallels with the Baptism of Jesus. In both events, the Father speaks, declaring Jesus to be his Son and in both the Spirit descends—as a dove in baptism and here in the cloud. Thus, both reveal God as Trinity. Both events mark a transition. After the Spirit descended in baptism, Jesus went about preaching and teaching in Israel. After the experience of the Spirit in the Transfiguration, Jesus began to prepare to die.
2. The Transfiguration adds a fourth part to the heavenly revelation. The Communion of the Saints is represented by the presence of Moses and Elijah. These two have a specific function here. They represent the law and the prophets, respectively. They talk to Jesus about his “decease” [or death] that he should accomplish as Jerusalem” to show that the cross is in accordance with the law and the prophets. The Greek word for decease is “exodus.” This highlights the cross as the fulfillment of all that Moses accomplished in leading Israel out of Egypt. Jesus will save and redeem Israel from slavery to sin and death through the cross as Moses saved Israel from slavery in the first Exodus.
3. The Transfiguration presents a strange juxtaposition of glory and death. Jesus was transfigured; the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became white and shiny at the very moment Moses and Elijah told him he must die. Thus, glory and death are linked. It is by the cross that Jesus will be glorified, will glorify the Father and will obtain glory.
B. The temporal experience of glory
1. The glory of the Transfiguration quickly went away. Peter tried to capture the moment by building of tents for Jesus and the two visitors (like the tent that housed the glory of God in the wilderness). This occasioned the Trinitarian revelation. The cloud descended upon them all and God spoke, essentially telling Peter to shut up and listen to Jesus. The luminescent glory was not to be captured. It was a momentary taste of the eternal glory the Son possessed from the beginning with the Father, and would possess again after his death; but the business at hand was to fulfill the vocation of the cross.
2. This is the pattern for our lives of prayer. We pray to the Father in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we are “transfigured”; that is, sometimes we have extraordinary experiences of union with God. However, this ecstatic and glorious aspect of prayer is momentary. We must always return to the realities of daily life in a fallen world.
3. Many misinterpret this to mean that God goes away just when we really need him. The Transfiguration corrects this false view. God gives us a taste of the glory that will be ours for eternity in the resurrection. Then he says, “Now go out and faithfully carry your cross.” If we were always on the mountaintop; if God were always holding our hand, obedience would be easy. God wants us to learn to follow him by acts of the will when his presence is hidden. God want us to develop the spiritual strength to act faithfully when we do not feel like it.
4. We develop this strength through our habits of prayer; through our pattern of withdrawing into prayer and returning to the world to do the work we are called to do. We ascend the mountain to experience union with God and are then sent out to carry our cross. The goal of the life of prayer is the narrow the gap between prayer and life; to cultivate a sense of God’s presence at all times—and not just when we are on the mountain; to, as St. Paul says, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
C. The epistle
1. The epistle is St. Peter’s account of the Transfiguration. He tells his readers that he saw the glory of Jesus on the mount and heard the Father’s voice. Peter also tells his readers that he is about to die—“I must shortly put off this my tabernacle.” His purpose in telling them this is so that “after my decease” his readers would “have these things always in remembrance.” Peter uses the very same word (“decease” or “exodus”) to describe his death that our gospel uses to describe the death of Jesus. Peter understood that he shared in the cross/exodus of Jesus by Baptism and faith. Peter’s death would also be a conquest, a leaving behind of the temporal and an entry into eternity.
2. We need to be clear about what this means. Peter’s exodus was not an escape from the physical world for the sake of the purely “spiritual” world of heaven. Rather, Peter is putting of his temporary tabernacle or tent, his mortal body, and entering into eternity in the sure and certain hope of receiving an eternal and immortal resurrection body after the pattern of Easter. Christian freedom is freedom in the body, not from the body. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the pattern and hope for us all.
D. A Christian view of death and temporary things
1. This highlights the Christian view of death. Death is something Christ has conquered and death is something we will also conquer because we live in Christ through faith. The world views death—both its reality and any talk of it—as a thing to be avoided because the world has no answer for death. Thus, like Peter on the mountain, the world is always trying to capture and maintain the temporal glory. Too often Christians adopt this worldly and secular view. We pursue temporal glories as though they were the most important things; we view faith as the thing that helps us manage our success in time, and we view eternity as a consolation prize that we get when we can no longer avoid death.
2. The proper point of view is sacramental. We do not reject the good things of this world. Rather, we realize they are signs that point us to things that are greater and eternal. As we develop our sacramental vision, we learn to see through the temporal to the eternal. This enables us both to embrace and let go of the moment. We embrace the momentary good as a sign of God’s presence, but when the passage of time takes that temporal good away, we continue to fix our eyes on the eternal—what the temporal thing pointed to.
3. The failure to see with sacramental vision, with eyes of faith, results in idolatry. We worship and serve the temporal as if it were the most important thing; then, when we lose it, we blame God for taking it away from us. Thus, we worship youth and beauty and act as though their passage were a personal affront to us—as if we were the first in history to grow old. We worship money; we assess life in terms of net worth and become elated or depressed depending upon the current level of the stock market. We worship convenience and pleasure and we become grumpy at any call to hardship or cross bearing.
4. The only way to win freedom from this idolatry is through the life of prayer. As we taste and experience the eternal through prayer, we begin to see the true nature of temporal things; we learn both to enjoy and let go of them because we learn to see them as they are, as signs of something greater.
5. This is why faith does not work as mere doctrine, held only in the mind but not experienced as the central reality of life through prayer. The Transfiguration is, thus, not just a pattern; the Transfiguration is the necessary pattern. We must experience this union with the Father through the Son in the Spirit—or else we will forever be stuck in time and afraid of death.
6. Transfiguration is our experience in the Eucharist. We ascend with Christ and in Christ. We remember again that we are God’s children through faith. We enter again into the cloud and are filled again with the Spirit. We taste of eternity in a moment in time. We can’t capture the moment of communion. We can only experience it as a glimpse of what will have forever in Christ. Then we must get back to our work; which is being faithful to do whatever God has given us to do as we look forward to our own exodus and the great glory of life in the world to come.