As I watched:
Thrones were set up
and the Ancient One took his throne.
His clothing was bright as snow,
and the hair on his head as white as wool;
his throne was flames of fire,
with wheels of burning fire.
A surging stream of fire
flowed out from where he sat;
Thousands upon thousands were ministering to him,
and myriads upon myriads attended him.
The court was convened and the books were opened.
As the visions during the night continued, I saw:
One like a Son of man coming,
on the clouds of heaven;
When he reached the Ancient One
and was presented before him,
The one like a Son of man received dominion, glory, and kingship;
all peoples, nations, and languages serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not be taken away,
his kingship shall not be destroyed.
We did not follow cleverly devised myths
when we made known to you
the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,
but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.
For he received honor and glory from God the Father
when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory,
"This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven
while we were with him on the holy mountain.
Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable.
You will do well to be attentive to it,
as to a lamp shining in a dark place,
until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother, John,
and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them;
his face shone like the sun
and his clothes became white as light.
And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them,
conversing with him.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
"Lord, it is good that we are here.
If you wish, I will make three tents here,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."
While he was still speaking, behold,
a bright cloud cast a shadow over them,
then from the cloud came a voice that said,
"This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;
listen to him."
When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate
and were very much afraid.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying,
"Rise, and do not be afraid."
And when the disciples raised their eyes,
they saw no one else but Jesus alone.
As they were coming down from the mountain,
Jesus charged them,
"Do not tell the vision to anyone
until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."
One of my favorite “stories” comes from a Protestant Scripture scholar. He and his family once toured a pre-Revolutionary war home in New England. As they were passing through the living room he spied a century’s old musket hanging above the fireplace. An avid gun collector, he spontaneously reached up and reverently touched its stock.
“Don’t touch that gun!” the tour guide yelled.
He immediately assured her he wasn’t going to harm it.
“I’m not worried about you harming the gun,” she replied. “I’m worried about the gun harming you. It’s loaded!”
When asked why anyone would keep a loaded musket in such a public place, she answered, “My ancestor who build this house loaded it one night in front of his family and hung it there, telling everyone, ‘This gun will fire the first shot for the Colonies’ independence.’”
“Too bad he died before 1776,” the tourist said.
“Oh, no,” the woman replied. “He lived into the 1800s.”
“Then why didn’t he fire the gun?”
“Well,” she smiled, “he just never thought George Washington’s little skirmishes with the British would ever amount to anything.”
The man obviously lived through the event he was anticipating, and never noticed it was happening!
By narrating Jesus’ transfiguration, our evangelists are assuring us that Jesus’ first followers didn’t fall into that near-sighted colonist’s trap. They knew who Jesus of Nazareth really was, and what he was doing.
At the beginning of the first Christian century, Jews had been waiting for more than 800 years for a Messiah: a unique person anointed by Yahweh to free them from their “problems” and inaugurate an ideal age. They had originally believed their king would be that person. But after a bunch of royal rotten eggs, they began to look elsewhere. Contrary to popular belief, there was no one scriptural concept of Messiah. Each age had different problems, requiring different Messiahs to take care of them.
The author of Daniel, for instance, writes in the midst of a 2nd century, BCE, Greek persecution. His people are being horribly oppressed - to the point of martyrdom - for their faith in Yahweh. Like all later “apocalyptic” writers, Daniel falls back on God to rescue them from their persecution. Only God can send someone “like a son of man” to stop the oppression. Though this term originally referred to all humans who, with Yahweh’s help, would eventually overcome the Greek menace, Jesus, in today’s gospel pericope seems to apply it specifically to himself.
Scholars believe this well-known transfiguration passage is a classic biblical “myth:” a portrayal of something which, though true, can only be expressed in symbolic language. In this case, it’s an insight into the person of Jesus. For his disciples, he’s more than meets the eye.
Jesus has become the light of their lives. Not only does he fulfill their dreams of Yahweh’s presence in their lives – something the feast of tents (or tabernacles) commemorates – he has a relationship with God like no other human; he’s actually God’s son! He embodies everything the Law and the prophets (Moses and Elijah) convey.
But of course, as I mentioned above, this biblical myth represents an insight. It’s there, and then it’s gone. It just lasts a few seconds. Only after Jesus’ followers eventually experience his resurrection will their conviction about these things become permanent, essential elements of their faith.
In a way, it’s a shame the author of II Peter took this transfiguration passage literally. It’s important that we fall back on our faith insights. Though looking up we, like his disciples, see only Jesus, if we don’t remember what we “saw” before we looked up, we’re liable to still have a loaded musket somewhere around.