Text: Matthew 17:1-9
Date: Transfiguration + 2/26/17
In Exodus chapter three we are told how Moses was called by God. “The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, ‘I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.’” He never found out. But God called to him out of the bush and was ordered to remove his sandals because he was standing on holy ground. Where God is there is holy ground. Finally we are told, “And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” (Ex 3:2-6).
God appeared to others in less threatening ways, disguising His glory to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But then recall how God appeared in all His glory to Isaiah who, when he saw the Lord in the temple surrounded by angels and incense and heard God’s voice he cringed in a corner because he knew the command given through Moses, “man shall not see me and live” (Ex 33:20). Isaiah said to himself, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Is 6:5). Throughout the Old Testament this was the rule. “Man shall not see me and live.” The Bible says, “the Lord your God is a consuming fire” (Dt 4:24).
But now, when the Son of God came down from heaven on His mission to save the world He did not appear in His full glory, but as we have been saying in the Epiphany Proper Preface, “In Him, being found in the substance of our mortal nature, You have manifested the fullness of Your glory,” that is, in a way that we can now look at God and see God hidden in the flesh and blood Person of Jesus, the incarnate Word. That is why we bow during the words of the creed, “He was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man,” to confess also His hidden divine nature. Today we give thanks to God that in Jesus’ transfiguration “He revealed His glory to His disciples,” that “with all the faithful [they may now] look forward to the glory of life everlasting.” Today we celebrate the still hidden glory of God, but not as a threatening, consuming fire but as the invitation to salvation, to glimpse “What Glory Shall Be [ours] Above.”
Now come Peter, James and John up another mountain with Jesus. He had done this before to pray. Consider these three men. Simple fishermen recruited by Jesus to become His full-time disciples. His divine glory hidden from their eyes, aside from His miracles, could it be that the disciples became so familiar with the human Jesus that they forgot if they ever knew that He is the Son of God? Well, once we remember Peter in a boat who, at a great catch of fish at Jesus word, “fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’” (Lk 5:8). Peter became aware of his shortcomings and sin in the presence of Jesus whom he called “Lord.” Then there were James and John whom Jesus called “Sons of thunder” (Mk 3:17). These were the ones not long after His Transfiguration who still had the misguided bravado, when a village of Samaritans rejected Jesus asked Him, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Lk 9:54).
So here they were with Jesus up a high mountain by themselves. They had done this before. Sometimes Jesus would go up a mountain to pray all by Himself. But this time, suddenly Jesus was transfigured before them. The word is “metamorphosis,” that is his appearance changed right before their eyes, his face showing like the sun, and his clothes white as light. And that’s not all. They recognized Moses and Elijah talking with Him. It is the Evangelist St. Luke who tells us what they were talking about, namely, His “exodus” or “departure which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem,” that is His crucifixion (Lk 9:31). Still it is interesting that the disciples didn’t remove their sandals like Moses or cringe behind a rock like Isaiah, but just stood there gawking. All except for Peter who thought they were seeing some kind of a side-show. And he began to blather about making three tents, “one for you and one for…” but while he was still speaking another sight and sound. Like the cloud that once covered Moses and Joshua on another mountain, a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud. This is no circus side-show and Jesus is no ordinary teacher or rabbi, but the voice said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” And then the command, “Listen to Him.” Finally, it all began to sink in and the disciples “fell on their faces and were terrified.”
Have you ever been terrified? Have you ever been terrified by God, by His Word? As the scripture says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps 111:10). For the beginning of wisdom is in true repentance of sin because of the fear of God’s wrath and punishment. It is not for no reason that we are taught the meaning of the Ten Commandments of God with the words, “We should fear and love God….”
But that’s not all. For Jesus immediately comes and touches us, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” The glory and majesty of Jesus’ divine nature they had just witnessed was still filtered in some way so as not to cause death but to cause life. Peter would describe this life when he wrote, “we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts,” that is the light of Christ which is faith.
For now we need to see God’s gift of faith in our hearts as a light giving us the vision of Jesus as true God and true Man. For now He is still hidden to our eyes. But this faith gives us hope because we know that Jesus was proclaimed our King when He was crucified for us and the whole world. It is as St. Paul wrote, “Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:12-18). “For God, who said, ‘let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).
Jesus came to the fearful disciples and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” Jesus is our glorious Lord, God and King. But when we lift up our eyes and see no one but Jesus only, then do we see not the fearful wrath of God but the God of grace. As we sing of Christ’s glory, let us also remember the promise of our salvation, in the words of the prophet Daniel, “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (Dan 12:3).