Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. — Luke 9:28-36 NRSV
What an amazing reading. It’s the kind of plot that could be expected in maybe something like science fiction, fantasy or maybe someone’s dreams, but here it is laid out, asking us to read, mark and inwardly digest it.
Jesus and his chosen three disciples had gone up on a mountain where Jesus could pray. Even though he could pray anywhere, really, maybe the crowds were too thick for him to have any peace on flatter territory, maybe he just wanted to get a little closer to heaven, who knows? The disciples were tired but managed to stay awake, unlike later in the Garden of Gethsemane. Maybe it was exhaustion, maybe it was mass hallucination, but Jesus began to change to a dazzling being and then there were two others with him. Did they announce themselves as Moses and Elijah? Were they the two most logical beings to appear in such a setting? It’s beyond my pay grade to figure that out, but there they were, talking to Jesus while the disciples rubbed their eyes again and again and probably pinched one another to see if the other saw the same thing.
After the conversation ended, Peter the Impulsive suggested they do something physical, namely build some shrines to the three of them but then a voice spoke up and told them to pay attention to Jesus’ words instead. God actually spoke to the disciples and it was recorded. This time, unlike at his baptism, there was no question of whether or not others heard God acknowledging Jesus as his son, beloved and chosen.
Something that strikes me is that there were several sets of three in this story. The number three was a common occurrence in the Bible, literally hundreds of threes such as Job’s three daughters, Noah’s three sons, Jonah in the fish for three days, David praying three times a day, Peter’s vision of the sheet repeated three times, three sacred items in the Ark of the Covenant, three young men in a fiery furnace, the three levels of cosmology (Sheol/abyss, earth, heavens), etc. It was a number that signified completion like the three sides of an equilateral triangle. In terms of the transfiguration, I see another three: Moses and Elijah as representing the past leading to Jesus as the fulfillment of the promise of a messiah; Peter, James and John as representatives of the future and continuing story of God’s relationship to humanity; and all of them meeting in their present, the period of time that keeps the past and the future from running into each other as someone once put it.
The other thing that strikes me is that after such an experience, nobody said anything to anybody else who wasn’t there. If you saw something like that, wouldn’t you want to tell someone if not the whole world? Or maybe it would seem just too crazy, too unreal for anyone to accept without thinking of you as a nut case or on some kind of mind-altering substance that was probably illegal. Maybe they needed to digest the experience, “process it,” as the current lingo goes. Whatever it was, it was another secret that didn’t get told right away, much as the secret of the women at the tomb at the end of Mark. Eventually, though, it did come out and appears in the gospel reading and in the other synoptic gospels although with slight differences. The basics, though, remain the same.
I’ve seen minor transfigurations, faces of people lighting up when seeing or hearing from a loved one, the face of a newly-ordained person, the face of a new mother seeing her child for the first time. There’s a glow about them, even if their clothes don’t turn whiter than a properly laundered altar cloth. Still, there’s something awe-some about the experience, maybe not as powerful an experience as Peter, James and John had, but maybe enough to be give me a hint of what they felt. It sort of gives me a minute point of entry into the story, even if at the very furthest margins of it as I read and contemplate it.
Maybe I want to have the disciples’ experience of the mystery, the continuity of history made visible and the very stamp of God’s presence in the whole thing.
But then, I have the Eucharist.