The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is dramatic, fantastic, spectacular. In a word, it is glorious. There is Jesus radiating divine energy on the mountain top while speaking with Israel’s most famous prophets – Moses and Elijah. Then comes the cloud of God’s presence and the voice of God adding three words to the ones spoken from heaven at Jesus baptismal anointing: “Listen to him.” And then, in a flash, it is over. No more radiance, no more prophets, no more cloud of presence or voice from heaven. Just Jesus and his trio of apprentices, climbing down, with instructions to say nothing of this “until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” (Matt. 17:9).
For a moment, in the middle of the story, the curtain is pulled back and Jesus is revealed as the Messiah – the Anointed One. He is filled with God’s glory. The glory of God is the presence of God, the energy of God, the power of God. It is most often portrayed as brilliant light, like the radiation of the sun. But in Hebrew the word for glory is “kabod”. It means, literally, “heavy”. To speak of God’s glory is to speak of God’s gravitas.
Notice that the story of Jesus’ transfiguration is never told without telling the story of Peter’s first denial of Jesus. The climb up the mountain top is always the second half of a scene that begins with the disciples getting Jesus’ glory all wrong. Peter is the first one to identify Jesus as the Messiah – the Anointed One. But when Jesus then says that he is to suffer, be killed and then raised Peter is enraged. He argues that divine glory is akin to human glory. He thinks that the Messiah must have a straight forward march to victory. A gospel of suffering will simply not sell. But Jesus will not be moved. He says that even his followers are in for self-denial, cross-bearing and loss of life. The disciples scratch their heads in confusion. This is the moment when Matthew, Mark and Luke tell the story of the Transfiguration with God’s three-word haiku-like sermon: “Listen to him”. The glory of God is to be present in Jesus Christ in the cruciform place of human suffering.
At University Hill Congregation we mark the annual celebration of the Transfiguration (this year on Sunday, February 10) as the culmination of our celebrations of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. We seek to avoid Peter’s temptation of denying Jesus even as we name him Messiah by keeping the focus on the upside-down glory of the gospel. Though it is not included in the lectionary readings for the day we remember the preceding story of Jesus’ prediction of trouble and of Peter’s rejection of that path. We are careful in shaping the liturgy that we do not simply sing and speak of the Transfiguration as one shining, glorious moment without also singing and speaking of the surprising news that this glory is, in Jesus Christ, to be found in the heart of our broken places.
On Transfiguration Sunday we make a crucial turn in our pilgrimage from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. We enter climbing up the Mount of Transfiguration at the high point of the season of Epiphany. We leave climbing down the Mount of Transfiguration to begin the challenging path through Lent. Our eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. To our surprise, we have learned that the glory out ahead will be met on a cross, in our trouble, where Jesus Christ waits to lead us through death to life.
(for a sermon that exemplifies this see: the glory of god in the face of jesus christ)