Thought for the day
Stories of extraordinary experiences can leave us feeling on the outside—such moments of intense awareness of presence are rare and fleeting. And yet, we all have our inklings of something more, the surprise of God in the midst of the everyday. Any deep experience, when we take time to reflect on it and appropriate it, will disclose to us “the beyond in the midst” in Bonhoeffer’s happy phrase. Love, birth, death, a child, nature, music, goodness and so on—all tokens of the something more which draws us on.
God of surprises, you are the beyond in the midst of life, always there to take us by surprise and delight us with your presence. Amen, amen!
Luke 9:28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 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. 33 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. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36 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.
The transfiguration is recounted in all three Synoptic Gospels. It is well worth comparing the three accounts in order to notice what each writer chose to highlight. There are three layers to the account: (i) what “happened” originally, if it can be reconstructed; (ii) the theophany as an experience for the three chosen apostles; (iii) the place and function of the story within each Gospel. Working backwards, each writer uses the story with different emphases. In Mark 9:2-10, it is an epiphany, an anticipation of the end, to give the disciples courage during the passion. In Matthew 17:1-9, it is an apocalyptic vision, again to give courage, but with a special intensity. Luke, avoiding the word transfiguration (metamorphosis) with its pagan overtones, portrays the encounter as a moment of prayer consistent with Luke’s portrait of Jesus as a man of prayer—in this Gospel, he is shown at prayer twice as frequently as in Matthew and Mark. The disappearance of Moses and Elijah is part of Luke’s theology that the times were changing and a new era beginning, with the new exodus (= departure), explicitly identified with the cross and resurrection of Jesus. All three Gospels make the connection with the Baptism.
- Special to Luke
- Eight days, to pray
- His appearance changed
- His departure (exodus); Jerusalem
- The disciples remain awake
- As they were leaving…
- They entered the cloud
- Silence descends (not instructed)
As a theophany, or even as a “Christophany”, the story shows the marks of such accounts: the mysterium (elusive), tremendum (awesome) et fascinans (delightful). Behind the traditions, lies a profound spiritual experience of Jesus, shared with the apostles. As with all authentic religious experiences, it can be conveyed in symbol and metaphor but never directly described. For an example, see 2 Corinthians 12 below.
Kind of writing
The Transfiguration belongs to a recognisable type of story, of which there are many examples in the Old Testament and a few examples in the New Testament. This kind of story is the appearance of a god (= theophany). An example of such a story would be stories such as Isaiah 6 or Numbers 12 or 1 Kings 19:8-13. Commonly such “appearance stories” take place on a mountain, there is a voice from the cloud, there is some unnatural light or radiance. Those experiencing the vision are both attracted and frightened. Usually, there is a word of reassurance.
Old Testament background
(i) Both Moses and Elijah were expected to usher in the end. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus himself is Moses and Elijah. The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. (Deut 18:15). Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. (Mal 4:5)
(ii) Moses: Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. (Exod 24:15–18)
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. (Exod 34:29)
(iii) Elijah: At that place Elijah came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kgs 19:9–13)
New Testament foreground
Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. (Heb 2:18) For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. (Heb 4:15)
“Son of God” links the temptation to the birth story: The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. (Luke 1:35). The title also makes a link with the crucial question at the trial before the Sanhedrin: All of them asked, “Are you, then, the Son of God?” He said to them, “You say that I am.” (Luke 22:70)
It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. (2 Cor 12:1–6)
Verse 28 After which words? Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God. The eight days should be six, but eight may refer to the day of resurrection. To pray marks a special emphasis in Luke.
Verse 29 When he was praying — Luke makes prayer the explicit setting. The appearance of his face became “other.” Luke avoids the word metamorphosis used by the other gospels, perhaps because it was current in pagan cults and he writes for a Gentile audience. “Dazzling” in Luke makes a verbal link with the resurrection proclamation at the empty tomb.
Verse 30 Two men, i.e. another link to the empty tomb proclamation at 24:4.
Verse 31 Talking to him about his exodus that is, the cross and resurrection will be a new exodus for all people. Jerusalem is mentioned because in Luke-Acts, Jerusalem is the centre of salvation: 9:31, 51,53; 13:22, 33; 17:11; 18:31; 19:11; 24:47-49, 52; Acts 1:8.
Verse 32 The disciples overcome their sleepiness to witness the vision.
Verse 33 As they are leaving him, Peter speaks. The title used is important. Master is found only in Luke and suggests a special relationship with the inner group, in contrast with Lord and teacher.
Verse 34 Luke times the fear to coincide with entering into the cloud, i.e. sharing the awesome experience.
Verse 35 The chosen or “elect” is a term found in the Lucan writings. Listening and hearing are a feature of the Lucan proclamation since ch. 4.
Verse 36 Luke eliminates the discussion of the resurrection and the so-called messianic secret command. We are left with the impression that silence descended upon them naturally on account of the extraordinary nature of the experience.
Pointers for prayer
1. The transfiguration experience was one that affirmed Jesus’ identity as the beloved disciple of God and strengthened him for the future. What have been the experiences, the moments of insight, that have clarified your sense of who you are and being beloved by God?
2. On the mountain the disciples saw Jesus in a new way. Sometimes in friendships there are moments of sharing in which we get to know a friend in a new and deeper way. Have you had that experience in human friendship, or in your relationship with Jesus, with God, or with the Spirit of God within? Recall when it happened and what it was like for you?
3. For the disciples, the experience also served as a reminder that their task as they accompanied Jesus on the road to Jerusalem was really to listen to him. This puts our Lenten efforts in context. What have you found helpful to get you to listen and to understand more deeply the meaning of the life and message of Jesus?
God of the Covenant, your presence fills us with awe, your word gives us unshakable hope. Fix in our hearts the image of your Son in glory, that, sustained on the path of discipleship, we may pass over with him to newness of life.We make our prayer through Christ, our deliverance and hope, who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.