In the middle of the summer, the Church pauses to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration—that strange event that occurs in Jesus' life not long before he leaves Galilee, turning his face toward Jerusalem, toward his death and resurrection. It is a mystery, and in pondering the mystery, we draw closer to the One who calls us each by name.
Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.
St. Matthew makes a point of telling us that the four of them go away "by themselves." We know right away that this is a private moment for the four of them. It is a moment particularly for them, otherwise everyone else would be there, too.
And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.
They see Jesus as they have never seen him before, so full of the light and life of God that it shines out of him. The brightness dazzles their eyes. We might say that they see his true self—his true identity—in all its glory.
Why does Jesus hide his true identity?
Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
Moses—the one who was given the law, the Torah.
Elijah—the prophet who was to come back again before the Messiah.
These people died long ago.
How can the past be now in the present?
How can this be? What can this mean?
Something is happening to time. Past, present, and Jesus shining so dazzlingly bright. Perhaps this is a glimpse of the future—Jesus resurrected, so full of the Risen life that he can never die again.
Perhaps time is transfigured.
Perhaps this moment points beyond time—to eternity that never changes.
Maybe Jesus does not hide his true identity.
Maybe his true identity rests in eternity.
This all proves too much for Peter. Glimpsing eternity, seeing the true identity of Jesus, he can no longer remain silent.
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Oh, Peter. He wants to anchor eternity in time. He wants to make this moment of encounter permanent. His emotions fill him; he cannot contain them. He wants to act on what he feels. He sees Jesus' true identity and he thinks he knows his own. He wants so badly to do what is right.
While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
Peter does not understand that this is mystery. The time will come to act. Just now, though, it is time simply to ponder. God says, Listen! Understanding will come later.
Peter could act now on his feelings and try to build dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. He could try to pin God down in one place. He could try to bend the will of God to suit himself and his swelling emotions. And if he does, he will miss his true calling. He will never find his own true identity that rests in eternity. He will be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We know that Peter must travel with Jesus to Jerusalem. We know he will deny Jesus—he will fail three times. He will reach his lowest point. He will feel so far removed from this experience of eternity on the mountain. He will be shaken to the core of his identity.
But out of the disaster of the cross, out of the disaster of Peter's failings—out of the disaster of all our sins and sinfulness—comes the Resurrection.
Life when life seems impossible.
Always—always—God moves to bring about more and more life.
When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.
When the disciples hear God's voice, they are overcome with fear. This is just too much. The glory of God—the Jewish people call this the "Shekinah"—overwhelms them. They crumple in fear.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
In their fear, Jesus comes.
They look up and see, not Moses and Elijah, but only Jesus, the fullness of both.
They listen and hear, not the voice of the Shekinah, but only Jesus, the Word of God. They do not need to be afraid.
In the days to come, when Jesus is taken from them and it seems like their whole world crumbles around them—everything they thought was true—they will need to recall this moment. They will need to get up, and be not afraid. The mystery will sustain them.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
On the way down the mountain, Jesus makes it clear again that, for now, this moment is a private moment just for them. Private, not secret. There is a difference, and we need to know the difference. The time comes for them to tell the world, when understanding has had time to grow.
What can we learn from this feast in the middle of the summer? What does this vision of Jesus' true identity mean for us? What do we do with this mystery?
Like Peter, sometimes we feel emotion swell in us and we want to act. We think we know what to do. But God calls us to listen first—to ponder the mystery, not to think we can solve it. The mystery draws us closer to who God is and to who we are. Eventually we arrive at understanding.
If we listen to Jesus.
If we listen to the Word of God.
Trying to figure out who we are—our identity that rests in God—can be confusing. Trying to determine how we are to respond—our role in building the Kingdom—can even be frightening. But into our confusion and fear, Jesus comes. Jesus, the Word of God. We do not need to be afraid.
In days to come, when it seems like our whole world crumbles around us—everything we thought was true—we will need to recall this moment. We will need to get up, and be not afraid. The mystery will sustain us.
Peter and James and his brother John have each other—a safe, small group to discuss what they have heard and seen. As we grow through life, it helps to find safe, small groups of people with whom we can discuss the Word of God. Our calling is private, not secret. It is a mystery, and in pondering the mystery together, we draw closer to the One who knows us and calls us each by name.