What a day for a hike, huh? By now the disciples are used to Jesus going off on his own, to pray or whatever (which shows definitively that Jesus was an introvert, right?). But this time he’s changing it up a bit, taking three close friends with him, up the mountain, where strange things are going to happen.
Before we dive into all that, I want to say a word about Peter first. Because this is one of the occasions in the gospels where Peter speaks “not knowing what he said.” Poor Peter has taken much flak over the centuries for babbling first and thinking later–if ever. But while he may not have understood what was happening when he saw Jesus in full-on glory, I do believe Peter’s instincts were good.
Think about it: they’re in the wilderness. There is before them the unmistakable Presence of God. If you’re a first century Jew, what would that remind you of? Maybe the years in the wilderness with Moses, carrying the Presence of God around in…a dwelling, a tent, a tabernacle. It was what Israel had before it had a Temple. And Peter was being a good Jew when he suggested that God is present, and worship should happen here.
Now, back to Jesus. There’s a paradox in this story, and I do love a paradox because paradoxes are often where the fun stuff happens. The Transfiguration, an event so important that the Church celebrates it twice a year, obviously puts Jesus’ divinity on full display. But here’s the paradox: I think this occasion also highlights Jesus’ humanity in a profound and poignant way.
Here’s the sequence of events. We have the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, which in John’s gospel is followed by the people trying to seize him by force and make him a king. They don’t understand the sort of Messiah he is, and the disciples don’t really get it yet either.
Right after that, Jesus asks the Twelve, “Who are people saying I am?” And then, “Who do you say I am?” Peter, who is sometimes right, says, “The Messiah, Son of the living God.”
So Peter’s starting to catch on, and maybe James and John are getting there too. In any case, Jesus responds by telling them about the suffering and death that lie before him. And immediately after that, we have the Transfiguration.
What did Jesus know, and when did he know it? The gospels don’t tell us when Jesus realized what was going to happen, but certainly by this time he knows. And even if he’d known it from the cradle, by now it’s approaching fast, getting really real. The pressure of carrying this knowledge–alone–is becoming intense. In John’s gospel Jesus speaks at this point of his soul being “troubled.”
So it seems likely that he went up the mountain that day because he was trying to come to terms with where all this was going. We hear that he was speaking with Moses and Elijah about “his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Then the Voice from the cloud affirms that Jesus is God’s son, chosen and beloved. When this is over, we’re told that Jesus is “found alone.”
That “alone” part is so heart-rending, so raw, and this is what I mean when I say the Transfiguration highlights Jesus’ humanity. Think of the burden he was carrying, knowing what was coming, which none of the people around him could truly share. Jesus knew he was going to endure intense suffering before being painfully and humiliatingly murdered.
He knew this, but the crowds who were so excited about him didn’t have a clue. His closest followers? Still in the dark. Did his mother know? She had been told by the prophet Simeon of a sword that would pierce her own soul, so she knew there would be some sadness to come. But would she have envisioned crucifixion?
And this would be no ordinary crucifixion, which would be bad enough. On the cross, in some way that isn’t fully revealed to us, Jesus entered into humanity’s deepest darkness. He plumbed the depths of human selfishness, greed, malice and stupidity, knew the full range of human suffering—trauma, grief, and loss—he went all the way to the bottom of human experience so that when he rose, he could bring us up with him. But this was something he would have to do alone, and from the cross we hear the agony of that aloneness: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
So the paradox is that we think of the Transfiguration as a time when the three disciples got a glimpse of Jesus’ divinity–and that’s right. At the same time, though, I believe they’re mainly there because of Jesus’ humanity: the burden of the knowledge he carried was so great that he wanted people he loved around him. He wanted at least a subset of his community.
I’ve said before that most of us have two great desires: the desire to be fully known, and the desire to be fully loved. We want people to “get” us, and to love us for who we really are. After several years of tireless ministry, I can imagine Jesus longing for someone among his followers to really get who he is, and love him for who he is. Why else would he start that conversation about “Who do people say that I am?”
Did he know what was going to happen on the mountain? Did he plan it? Rosemary Haughten’s book The Passionate God, has an interesting take on this. Just after Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, Son of the living God, Jesus foretells his death and resurrection. Peter opposes him so strongly that Jesus calls him “Satan”: “Get behind me!”
Haughten argues that Jesus’ disciples are still not getting it, at a time when his need to communicate his growing knowledge of both his identity and his destiny was becoming particularly intense. In some way, she suggests, Jesus needed his disciples’ understanding in order to come to terms with his future himself, so that whatever his intentions were on the way up the mountain, by the time they reached the top everything he was and everything he was facing simply burst out of him.
He showed his true self to them, because he’d reached the point where he couldn’t not show them. His true self just burst forth in the intensity and urgency of his longing for human connection. They saw as much of him as they could handle–and still get up again. But that longing for human connection wasn’t just some moment of weakness–it was why he’d come. God has that longing for us all the time: “I am the Lord,” we hear in Malachi, “I do not change.”
And if the fact that Jesus was shining like the sun, plus the presence of Moses and Elijah, were not enough to clarify things to the disciples–who were famously slow learners–there was the Voice from the cloud: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Stop making assumptions about how you think this is going to work, and listen to him!”
It’s like that moment in a romantic relationship when you finally tell your last secret, the Big One, the one where if they don’t know it, they cannot really love you for who you are. Jesus didn’t come to be the Son of God all by himself. He wasn’t that much of an introvert. He came to be human, and in his humanity, to need other people. To need community, just like every other human being.
Toward the end of the Transfiguration, after the Voice had spoken, “Jesus is found alone.” Alone again in his humanity. And yet, not alone. The disciples had seen who he was. The One who’d sent him had affirmed who he was. Moses and Elijah had stepped back into time to talk with him about his coming ordeal–they understood who he was.
So yes: he will have to save humanity alone–but he’s had the comfort and support of his community for this moment on the mountain. And it’s after this that we hear that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Shortly after that we’ll hear why: in a comment to the Pharisees that’s half sardonic, half wistful, he says: “It cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem.” He’s come to terms with his destiny by now, but his heart is aching. He longs to gather the children of Jerusalem like chicks under his wings, but they aren’t willing. “Fine,” he says; “We’ll do this your way.”
So where’s the good news in this? Sometimes when I’m going through something really hard and I think I should be stronger, that if I really had any faith I wouldn’t be such a needy mess, I “hear” words of comfort: “Jesus didn’t make it look easy, and you don’t have to either.” It’s okay to need other people. It’s okay to draw on them for strength. That’s how Jesus did it, and it’s how it’s supposed to be. He shared in our human need so that, in the fullness of time, we will share in his radiant glory.
One last thing: You may be thinking, “Well where’s my mountaintop experience? Why doesn’t everyone get one? If God wants us to believe, why don’t we all get a demonstration of divinity so powerful that we’ll just have to believe?”
But that’s just it: “we’ll have to believe.” If God offers overwhelming evidence, then we’re just overwhelmed. We can’t choose in freedom. But God pursues us; God doesn’t assault us. God will never compel us to faith–that wouldn’t be faith. And it wouldn’t be authentic relationship. No. We need to look for the revelations, the theophanies great, and more often small, that present themselves to us every day. If we’re paying attention, we’ll find that Jesus’ glory bursts through to us all the time. So how will you remind yourself, this week, to keep watch for it?