By Emily HeadyCelebrated on August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration commemorates the vivid, but baffling, passage in which Jesus ascends Mt. Tabor to pray, taking along his closest friends and disciples—Peter, James, and John. Jesus’ Transfiguration, a shift in His shape or form, occurs there, as His clothing becomes dazzling white and His face changes in some indescribable way. Friends appear with Him, the law-giver Moses and the prophet Elijah, and the three converse about Jesus’ coming passion, the “exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Lk 9.31). The disciples, who apparently had fallen asleep prior to this moment, find themselves fully awake, and Peter, as is his wont, externalizes his confusion by running his mouth, suggesting that they make a camp, so that the six of them could hang out there for, presumably, all eternity. Luke helpfully fills in that Peter “did not know what he was saying”—and we know this, too, because the voice of God the Father cuts Peter off, identifying Jesus as his son and urging them not to talk, but to listen.
Like many kids who got in trouble in school for talking, I identify with Peter. He is always running his mouth, saying the thing that someone might just say if he lacked a filter. But to be fair, the Transfiguration is anything but easy to parse. It is murky, dream-like, otherworldly—all those things that don’t make for great storytelling or witty one-liners. So Peter’s bumbling reaction makes sense for a certain sort of person who processes things verbally. But so also does the advice Peter receives, and the take-away is clear: in a situation where we can’t possibly know what we are talking about, where our coming to consciousness is as a waking from a long, hard sleep, it’s best to listen and watch and learn.
By the time Peter was writing his epistles, he had apparently taken this lesson to heart, and he was urging his readers to do the same: “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” (2 Pt 1:19). Peter is neither a wordsmith nor a mystic; it is likely, then, that his somewhat confusing advice to “be attentive . . . as to a lamp shining in a dark place” derives in part from the way that the original passage in Luke, or the experience it describes, mixes imagery of sight with imagery of sound. Slumbering disciples are shaken awake by a blaze of glory and a conversation overheard—two occurrences that amount to the same thing, a prophetic utterance. Similarly, we are called from our own sleepy lives to watch and hear a new world coming into being.
But really, this confusion of sight with sound, image with word, as a harbinger of what the future will look like presents no surprise, for we’ve been there before. The scene of the Transfiguration—the most spectacularly visual of biblical images—is an echo-chamber. Jesus in the Luke narrative looks and sounds like the Ancient One from Daniel, with clothing “bright as snow” (Dan 7.9) and a face that evades description. The words God the Father speaks over Jesus are a direct echo of the words He spoke at Jesus’ baptism, when the Spirit descended like a dove. The Transfigurative moment itself is a fulfillment of the prophecy Jesus had uttered immediately before, when He said that some of those with him “would not taste death” until they had seen His kingdom (Lk 9.27), and it flashes forward, a sort of ante-echo, to Jesus’ new and glorious post-resurrection body. The “altogether reliable” message that Peter understands is such because it both shows and tells in unison, as does Jesus Himself, the Word made flesh and the Image of the invisible God.Given this, the Transfiguration pushes us to re-evaluate one of our most fundamental Christological doctrines: the Incarnation. The Incarnation, the having-been-made-fleshness of Jesus, occurs within the boundaries of this world. It is the way God chose to enter the reality in which we live and move and have our being. It is the way He taught us to follow Him—apprenticeship-style, doing as He did, in our suits of skin and bone. But the incarnation does not stop at the limits of this world; it continues, forever, with embodiment being perfected and made right, rather than set aside altogether, as we move beyond this earth. The Incarnation pulls back the veil on heaven by bringing it, by bringing Him, down to earth. And the Transfiguration pulls back the veil on heaven by inviting us to go there, or perhaps, to wake to a realization of just how close it is already. God with us looks different on the mountain.
Poor blabber-mouthing Peter, as mistaken as his words may be, seems to get this. He suggests putting up some tents, tabernacles, so that the kingdom into which he has just been invited may continue indefinitely. Any number of sermons could be preached about why Peter’s suggestion makes no sense; one doesn’t just go camping with Moses and Elijah, for instance, and one doesn’t get to nap through all of eternity, even in a tabernacle.
The tabernacles Peter imagines resonate with the Jewish fall feast of Sukkot, in which meals are taken in a small tent or hut in commemoration of the dwellings the Israelites used in the desert during their forty years. In later years, the festival came to be associated with harvest time, and with the dedication of King Solomon’s temple, the very space that made communication with God possible and the very space whose veil would be torn not long after this conversation. For Peter the celebration he was suggesting simply falls in line with older patterns that celebrate the plenitude and presence of God on the journey toward the Promised Land.
Yet Peter misses that Jesus’ transfiguration does not so much change the reality he lives in; it reveals it more fully. God himself has already chosen to “tabernacle” with his people, to dwell among them in flesh made word. So the rejoinder God the Father gives to Peter’s well-meaning suggestion might be taken not as a divine smack-down but as a corrective: “You’re already dwelling in the kingdom when you hear my Son.” Watch, and listen; wake, don’t sleep.The Collect for the Feast of the Transfiguration (from the Mass of St. Pius V) shows this movement between voice and image, dialog and scene, as a harbinger of the future into which we’ll wake and through which we are now, it seems, sleeping:
O God . . . Who didst wonderfully foreshow the perfect adoption of Thy children by a voice coming down in a shining cloud, mercifully grant that we be made co-heirs of the King of glory Himself, and grant us to be sharers in that very glory.
Prophetic utterance rests alongside foreshowing, and the suggestion is that both seeing and hearing are necessary, both for the trials that lie immediately ahead and for waking up to the significances of our present. The Catechism reminds us of the glory bound up in suffering, and the fullness of what flesh, an incarnation, can hold: “the ascent onto the ‘high mountain’ prepares for the ascent to Calvary. Christ, Head of the Church, manifests what his Body contains and radiates in the sacraments: ‘the hope of glory’” [CCC 568]. Christ’s body, broken on the cross but bookended by awe-inspiring revelations of its gloriousness, doesn’t just envelope the divine in human flesh, but shows the hope we have of camping—tabernacling in incorruption—in a new way in the future as well.
In Ephesians, we are promised that “in the dispensation of the fullness of times” God will “gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth, even in him” (Eph 1:10). This, ultimately, is the promise of the Transfiguration. If we are asked to see and hear together in ways that do not resonate with our fleshly lives, or that seem to strain at the limits of what we believe flesh can hold, that is because we do not yet tabernacle in the fullest of realms. The “unsearchable riches of Christ,” the mystery that has from the beginning of the world been hidden, is breaking out. But not to us only. With Paul we want to “make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery,” but we also know that the same mystery is being declared “now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places” (Eph 3:9-10).The Transfiguration is not speaking to us alone, but it is speaking to us. So we, with Peter, are asked to listen and see and know beyond the way we have listened and seen thus far—not just to build tents because in the way we know how to build them, but to camp out in the real spiritual world Jesus reveals, and to do it not by building anything, but by being.
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