Feast of the Transfiguration
Rev. Doug Floyd
Peter, James, and John are dazed. The sudden eruption of God’s glory knocks them out as though dead. Like walking from a dark cave into the middle of the glaring sun, they are stunned, blinded. As Peter begins to see Jesus Transfigured into pure light from light, he sees a mystery. Moses and Elijah stand alongside Jesus and all things bathed in the glory shining out from the Son of God. What is Peter seeing? When is he seeing? Have they in one moment stepped from Mt Tabor into the eternal paradise of God?
The beauty of the Lord is disarming.
Today we celebrate this glory, this wonder, the unveiling of Jesus as the pure light of God’s love. Today we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. About six months ago, we read this story on the last Sunday of Epiphany as we beheld the full unveiling of Jesus in glory. We read this story even as we faced the coming of Lent. From the place of Transfiguration, we looked with Jesus toward the place of the skull, Golgotha. The story of the Transfiguration, the event of the Transfiguration, the moment of the Transfiguration, prepares the disciples for the descent as they follow Jesus into the way of the cross.
Six months after our Lenten meditations, we are confronted again with the blinding light of Transfiguration. We are not in Epiphany. We are not moving toward Lent. We are in the season after Pentecost when the church meditates upon our call to follow Jesus in this world. Yet today we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ. August 6 is the official feast day, but we are celebrating it on the Sunday closest to August 6. This celebration in August goes back to the Byzantine church sometime between the fourth and sixth century. The reason they chose August 6 was that it marked the day on which The Church of the Transfiguration had been dedicated on Mt. Tabor.
Think about that for a moment. The feast day started as a remembrance and celebration of the church built in the place where the event of the Transfiguration of Jesus took place. Even as the ancient Christians remembered the glory of the Transfiguration, they remembered the church worshipping the Lord at the place of the Transfiguration. It is as though the light and glory of the Transfiguration continued to shine from the church in worship.
This helps us to see why we would remember this holy event in the middle of the season after Pentecost. We are rejoicing in the light of Christ who makes all things new and who shines out into all the world through his called out people, his church. When we worship, when we partake of the Eucharist, we are tasting and seeing the glimpse of the holy light from Jesus.
With that in mind, let us return to the singular event of the Transfiguration. When Jesus ascends the mountain with his disciples, he leads them up on the mountain to pray. Gregory of Nyssa says that he leads the disciples away from the distractions of the world and the city to quiet themselves before the God of Israel. In that moment of prayer, a mystery, a wonder, a glory unveiled before their eyes that was so overwhelming that the disciples were heavy with sleep. This is a deep sleep, a death-like sleep, a sleep that might be likened to the sleep of Adam when the Lord removed a rib to create Eve. When the disciples regained their senses, it is quite possible they would not know if they were still alive or if they had stepped into an eternal state of glory. It is evident from their response that they are completely disoriented.
The Lord has opened their eyes to His beauty and it is almost more than they can bear. Many in the church have believed that the light that Paul sees on the road to Damascus is this same, blinding glory. Like Peter, Paul is disoriented. Later he will say that he did not know if he was in the body or out of the body. In that state of glory, Paul says that he heard things that no man can utter. He encountered a glory beyond understanding, he beheld a love beyond knowing.
In this moment of encountering the fullness of glory in the face of Jesus, Paul is changed from an enemy of the church to an evangel, a messenger of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
It appears John encountered this same glory again in the Revelation when he hears the Lord and then turns to behold him. He writes,
Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. (Re 1:12–16).
In each of these encounters, the eyes of the disciples have been opened to the full light of God’s glory. When John writes his Gospel, he does not include an account of the event on the mount of Transfiguration, but it would seem that he writes his whole gospel shines with this true light coming into the world that has overcome the darkness and the darkness cannot comprehend it.
This light, this unveiling of God’s holiness is not simply found at Mt Tabor, on the road to Damascus, or on the island of Patmos. We read stories of this light of God’s glory all through Scripture. Moses is illumined in this glorious light, and the people of Israel are terrified. Elijah is taken up into this fiery light. Isaiah beholds God in all His glory and cries out, “I am coming undone.” It is both beautiful and terrifying.
The Gospel of John gives us the clearest articulation of this light, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1:14). John will also tell us that, “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (Jn 1:3).
The heavens and the earth were created and are sustained in and through the Son of God, Jesus the Christ. Thus we might also say that the light of God’s glory shines in and through all things. Or as Paul reminds us, the love of God shines out in and through all things thus we cannot plumb the heights or depths or lengths of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ.
Everything that is has its origin in the light of God’s love. He could look with joy and satisfaction upon His creation and proclaim, “It is very good.” Yet when we look around, it does not always seem so very good. It can seem dark and broken. It can seem corrupt and collapsing. It can seem heartless and hopeless.
Our eyes and hearts can grow dark as we look out into the depths of a world turned in upon itself, a world of corruption and unkindness, of slavery and torture, of wars and rumors of wars. How many in the world have lost faith because of pain, grief and unexplainable suffering? As Jesus Himself declares, “And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.” (Mt 24:12).
How can faith survive in this world gone wrong?
The sins of the world cannot stop the glory of God, but they can blind us to it. Some of the church fathers talk about how the world that shines with the light of God’s glorious love and beauty becomes opaque because of sin. We become blind and deaf to His glory all around us. The cross of Christ both reveals our blindness and God’s glory.
Before ascending Mt Tabor, Jesus tells the disciples, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Lk 9:22). If they continue to follow him, they must deny themselves and follow in the way of the cross. The love of God poured out in a world gone wrong looks like death, like crucifixion, like defeat.
God pours out His love without restraint and appears to fail. That is appears to fail. The eye cannot perceive it. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians,
We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”— (1 Co 2:7–9).
The eyes and ears of the world could not see, could not hear. Jesus says that,
22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, 23 but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Mt 6:22–23).
Some did see. When he beholds the baby Jesus, Simeon sees. He says,
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.” (Lk 2:29–32).
Hebrews 11 tells us of saints who did see, who did hear, and who did follow in this way of light.
This can encourage us today. Though we live in the age after the resurrection, we live in a world that is mostly blind to resurrection, to life, to hope, to love. And yet, each breath we breathe, each step we take, each moment we exist, we are sustained by the light of the His love. “In Him we live and move and have our being.” Let us look to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who opens bind eyes and deaf ears.
On this Feast of Transfiguration, we pause to remember that we are living in a world drenched with the beauty and wonder and glory of God. We pray that we might see the glory of His love through suffering, through the pain of this world. We pray that we might see through the cross to the light of resurrection. Like Jesus, may we see the joy beyond the cross.
Poets and painters and singers often help me to see afresh the glory of God in the midst of this world. May these words from the Canadian poet, Sarah Klassen be a prayer for us to see, to really behold the light of God’s glory all around us.
First Day of Creation
Let there be light! A flash, a bolt, a brilliant blaze
that puts the kibosh on chaos.
Let light shine on width, breadth,
depth, a dazzle to illuminate all matter everywhere. Let it glint
gloriously off ocean wave, sea swell, a brooklet’s little ripples.
Let fish rejoice in it fantastically, the fur of fox, cat, cougar,
coyote be haloed. Let light’s hot pulse pull prairie grass, kinnikinnik
up, up to verdant growth, turn grain from green to gold.
In every garden everywhere let peonies, nasturtiums and
preposterous begonias unfold. Let every butterfly, bat, bird
bathe in radiance. Let it pour mornings into breakfast bowls,
fill empty cups to overflowing. At evening let light’s long plumes
linger: violet and vivid on every atom of creation.
When darkness closes in, shrouding the valley floor,
let sky be spangled still, lit with the glow of meteors,
the murky milky way, the white hot stars. O Light of life,
Light of the wobbling world: your splendor does not tarnish,
will not be overcome by random avalanche,
smart missile, guns, flood, smoke of forest fire.
Your warmth will melt the iron grip of fear.
A stone-cold guarded grave can never hold you.[i]
[i] Sarah Klassen, “First Day of Creation” in The Christian Century, February 4, 2015 issue < https://www.christiancentury.org/artsculture/poems/first-day-creation>