Mark’s story of the transfiguration is one of the three gospel records of this important event. Only John leaves this story out of his gospel, but John shares what he learned that day in the book of Revelation. The transfiguration of Christ was a singular event that science fiction writers might call a nexus. It was a moment when the world of time and space intersected dramatically with the “world” of eternity and infinity. Was it an instant? Was it a century? We have only the language of time and space for our use. To speak of such an event as if it had the same limitations and boundaries as our days and minutes is ludicrous. Yet the disciples had only that language with which to speak of it, and the gospel writers had only that language with which to record it.
I worked for a while with a friend who belonged to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She had icons in her cubicle at work, and one day I asked her about them. She explained to me that the icon is a window into eternity. In that sense, the transfiguration was an icon for the disciples, a window into eternity, into heaven.
The gospel writers all tell how Jesus had begun to prepare his disciples for his death. He told them that he would be arrested and executed, and they did not like hearing that prediction one bit. Peter even reprimanded Christ for saying such a thing. Whereupon, Jesus told them something else disturbing: every person who wanted to be his follower would need to be ready for the same fate. He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35) So, not only did Jesus expect to be persecuted and die; he also expected his followers to be persecuted and die. Jesus was getting serious. The kingdom he kept talking about wasn’t going to be simply a festival of healing and miraculous exorcisms. It wasn’t going to be the fun of being a celebrity in a small town. This news was depressing and scary. No wonder Peter wanted Jesus to stop talking like that.
At the transfiguration, it was Peter who couldn’t stop talking. Peter’s reputation is that his excitement often inspires thoughtless eagerness. At the transfiguration, Peter’s enthusiasm for all the positive things that were happening overwhelmed his good sense. The other disciples were speechless with awe at the sight, but not Peter. He didn’t understand any more than they did, but like a summer camper who doesn’t want to go home, Peter babbled on about staying there on that mountain forever. He didn’t get it.
They should have understood what was happening, because it was all so beautifully staged by God. The disciples all knew the story of Moses at Sinai. Moses went up on a mountain. There was a cloud. God spoke. At Sinai God made Israel his kingdom of priests. He gave them work to do and promised to be with them to carry them through the challenges they would endure. The disciples should have recognized the scene. Instead, they were so flabbergasted by the sight of Moses and Elijah before their very eyes that they were slow to absorb the real message of that day.
The real message was, get ready.
Jesus had warned them of his death. Here he was comforting them with his life. The next time anyone saw him looking so magnificent and full of light would be at the resurrection. This moment looked into eternity, however, not simply the time/space future. The apostle John remembers this moment that way when he describes Christ in the book of Revelation. The Bible says that the disciples didn’t talk about this event after it was over, and I am sure they were simply unable to put such a thing into words. That problem, of course, is the reason it needed to be a visual experience. Christ knew that he could never explain in words that he was truly God and that he could not be confined to a time/space death. His eternal nature as the Son of God was impossible to explain in words. He gave the disciples an icon, a window into eternity, so they would be ready to understand the resurrection. He wanted them to be comforted by this memory when the time came. The words that mattered were the same words spoken at Christ’s baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved.” In time, and in eternity, Jesus was one with God.
What difference does that make to me? I see something comforting for me, as it came to be comforting for the disciples. The fact that Jesus’ story is ancient history does not make it outdated. The reality of Christ is that he can keep the promise he made at the ascension – namely a promise to be with us to the end of the age. If Christ transcends time, then every moment in time is Now to him. He can be with me, because he was, he is, and he is to come. That is what the apostle John learned from this experience, and I take it to heart. The story of Jesus is, as one hymn says, an “old, old story,” but Jesus is forever, as revealed in the transfiguration. He is with me, as he promised, yesterday, today and forever.