Transfiguration (1516-1520), Raphael, oil on wood, 159 in. x 109 in., Vatican Museums, Vatican City
Perusing online auctions is a guilty pleasure of mine. I’m usually looking at art. Unfortunately most of what I like I can’t afford and what I can afford I don’t like. In this latter category is an unusual item I saw recently. Here’s what the description said, “Light-Up Holographic Jesus Picture.” It was a wood-framed shadow box with a little light bulb that illuminated a 3-D image of Jesus, complete with long flowing hair. I was tempted to bid on it, not for its artistic value, but because it was one of the most over-the-top kitsch religious items I’ve ever seen. It would make a perfect contribution to a white elephant gift exchange. As I was preparing this sermon I kept thinking about that light-up Jesus, because on this Transfiguration Sunday we recall one of the most over-the-top events in Jesus’ earthy ministry—a time when he revealed his glory by lighting up like a light bulb.
It’s easy to forget Jesus was an extraterrestrial. Not like E.T. or Superman. He didn’t arrive from another planet. Jesus entered the world like any other human; he was born naturally (though the Bible says his conception was miraculous, having no man as his father, only God). He was fully human. So human, in fact, that his disciples had a hard time thinking of him as anything else. He ate, slept, wept, and even bled and died. In Mark 9:2-9, however, the curtain is momentarily pulled back to reveal a glimpse of Jesus in his heavenly glory. I can’t imagine what it was like for the disciples Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration, watching as Jesus suddenly morphed from normal human appearance into an otherworldly being in dazzling white, flanked on either side by Moses and Elijah. (The Greek word Mark uses for “transfigure” is morphoo (more-FAH-oh), the origin of our English verb “morph,” which means to be transformed.)
Here’s what I think the main point of the story is: Jesus is greater than the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah) and they bear witness to him. One of the things that strikes me most about this passage is its directionality: backward, upward, and downward. First, the passage looks backward. Moses, the lawgiver, and Elijah, the prophet, represent the Law and the Prophets respectively. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). The phrase “the law and the prophets” was a shorthand for the whole of Hebrew scripture existing in Jesus day. Just as the entire body of Hebrew scripture testifies to the coming Messiah, on the Mount of Transfiguration Moses (Law) and Elijah (Prophets) appear, bearing witness to Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament.
Not only does the passage look backward, but it also directs our gaze upward. The traditional site of the transfiguration is Mount Tabor, which is a big hill in Galilee, hardly a mountain. It is more likely that the miracle took place on snow-capped Mount Hermon, the highest peak in Israel, which was much closer to Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus and the disciples were six days earlier. The significance is that the mountaintop is closer to heaven and therefore more appropriate for a heavenly vision. Elijah, one of the Old Testament participants in the story, took his upward journey to heaven in a chariot of fire and a whirlwind as Elisha stood gazing skyward (2 Kings 2:1-14).
The purpose of this mountaintop experience seems to have been to prepare Jesus and his disciples for his coming trial and death. Only Luke gives the content of the conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah: Jesus approaching trip to Jerusalem and his “departure” (Luke 9:30). The word for “departure” is “exodus”—a word pregnant with biblical meaning. The Heavenly Father’s words—“This is my beloved son”—thundering from a cloud must have confirmed to Jesus that he was on the right path. The disciples too needed confirmation. Upon seeing Jesus in his glory, the disciples were “exceedingly afraid.” Peter didn’t know what to say but babbled anyway—something about building three tabernacles. The divine voice commands him to stop talking and start listening: “This is my beloved son. Hear him!” Like Peter, we spend too much time talking and not enough time listening to Jesus. Later Peter would cite this mountaintop experience as proof for the truth of his message (2 Pet. 1:16-18).
Just as suddenly as the vision on the mountain appeared, it disappeared. (A “vision” is what Jesus called the experience in Matt. 17:9.) So Jesus and the disciples went downward. As they trudged down the mountain, the disciples heads still reeling from what they had seen and heard, Jesus “ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (Mark 9:10). The resurrection would be Jesus’ ultimate transfiguration, but what lay in his immediate path was the downward way of suffering and death.
Jesus repeatedly chose the downward way over the upward way. He came down from heaven to earth, trading his heavenly glory for an earthly life of service and self-sacrifice. “For the son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). After being lifted up on the cross, he went down to the tomb, then down to the depths of hell. Down, down, down—the downward way. Glory comes not by self-promotion but through humility and self-sacrifice. The way up is down. That’s something we should think about as we leave the brightness of Epiphany and move forward into the somber season of Lent.