Hokia ki ō maunga kia purea koe i ngā hau o Tāwhirimātea ~ Return to your ancestral mountains to be cleansed by the winds of Tāwhirimātea. (Whakataukī / Maori Proverb)
While the Feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated annually on August 6 during Ordinary Time, in my church tradition the gospel story of the transfiguration is also placed liturgically to be read every year on the weekend before Ash Wednesday, the Sunday before the season of Lent begins. So that just when we are expecting and anticipating the beginning of Jesus’ – and our – difficult journey back into Jerusalem toward the cross, we find ourselves here, joining Peter, James, and John in the ascent up the mountain with Jesus. Likewise, the gospel narrative itself puts this story just after Peter’s Christological confession, “[You are] the Messiah of God” (Luke 9:20), and just before Jesus’ return to Jerusalem.
It is in this biblical and liturgical context that sermons on the transfiguration in my tradition, the Anglican church of Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia, often urge us to appreciate the transience of mountaintop beauty. A call to revel in the light and the glory, yes, but only for a moment, always remembering the importance of our coming descent back down the mountain, back into the world’s brokenness, in the journey toward Jerusalem and into the way of suffering and the cross. We find Peter is often criticized for his response: he does not want to descend; he wants to stay on the mountain! Finding himself face to face with the glory of God and in the company of those who had gone before, he wishes to stay.
We are taught that in this desire Peter completely misses the point. He misunderstands, and his request to prolong the glorious scene shows his ignorance concerning Jesus’ mission to the cross. Likewise, the liturgy reprimands us in anticipation, with Peter, for wanting to prolong this glorious experience of brilliance and beauty. It prompts us to stay focused on the final mission, which is to follow Jesus back down the mountain into the way of the cross and into a life of discipleship. The moral emphasis is clear and follows directly from what Jesus has just said in Luke 9:23: “let them deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow me.”
If we are to accept such a view of Peter, however, we must first contend with Jesus’ own response to the disciples’ “misunderstanding” here: that is, complete silence. There is no censure, no reprimand, and no reproach. It follows that we must consider, in contrast to what we have been taught: Is Peter correct in wanting to stay on the mountain? Or at least, is his desire to prolong this experience entirely appropriate? Is being on, staying on, or even going back to the mountain one of the key significances of our text?
Bible passage: Luke 9:28-35
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
On the mountain we encounter the glory of God, that eternal light which shone at creation, that was with Moses and Elijah on Mount Horeb, that is witnessed to by creation itself (Ps. 19:1), shining now in the face of Christ. In this, we find the heart of the gospel: divine glory is revealed most fully in the humility of the servant who is the Son, who, as attested in history and by those who have gone before, is one with the God on the mountain and the Spirit in the cloud.
And so we find ourselves not yet on a descent back down to the valley or yet at the cross but more poignantly back in Bethlehem – with a baby and with the magi who were moved by the face of Christ. We are back at the beginning and with the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, standing face to face with that of which Zechariah spoke in Luke 1:78-79: “the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
It is right indeed to be in awe! It is good to stop and to dwell, to stay, overwhelmed in the presence of greatness, and gaze upon that light in the face of Christ.
Nevertheless, the light is not meant to exist only on this mountain. It exists in the miraculous and the sublime but likewise in us as we see in Jesus the Christ – in the broken, the lost, in the humbled and the poor, and in those who continue to be oppressed under systems of domination. We can find it and see it in the mountain and the land herself and in those in whose faces – like Christ’s – God is revealed. This is where we can encounter God, if only we have eyes to see.
And if we really listen, we might hear what God has to say: the proclamation of good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and the liberation of the oppressed. We might hear Jesus comforting the afflicted and summoning life to those tormented by death. We might hear blessings being pronounced for the poor and those who mourn, the meek and the merciful and the pure in heart; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and who pursue peace. We also hear judgments being made against the rich and the unjust wielding of power. Ultimately, in this magnificent encounter, if we really listen, we might hear him impart that remarkable mandate of our faith: “Love one another. Just as I have loved you” (John 13:34).
Somewhat paradoxically, John is the only evangelist who does not feature this story of Jesus’ transfiguration. Rather, for John, the glory of God can be seen throughout the entire life and ministry of Jesus. This “seeing” God’s glory in Jesus’ humanity is something of a paradox, but that is the point. Such a light confounds all our wants to define it and transcends all the names and shapes we might wish to give it. Its very nature resists all attempts to tame and contain it, constantly contesting both old and new ideas alike. The light exists on a mountain, which lies beyond the grasp of cognitive thought, enduring as a perpetual corrective and reframing of any knowledge we might claim to possess.
The point here on the mountaintop is that we are not simply to “understand” to aid our journey to the cross, as Peter is often admonished. On the contrary. The idea that one might merely comprehend in the realm of conceptual thinking is an impossible corollary of a light, which remains beyond all conceptualizations. Rather, it is to really see and participate in the reality of the light itself, the glory in which the unity and reconciliation of the whole of creation is affected, that we are ourselves transfigured.
Likewise, transfigured, immersed and in unity with this light, we love because we are love. We are peaceful because we are one with the source of peace. We pursue justice not because we understand or believe that it is the right thing to do as disciples of Jesus, but because we are united with and transfigured into a glory which is seen, as we see in the Gospel of John, throughout the truly human life of the incarnate Son. The Son who shines God’s glory in the raising of the dead, the healing of the sick, the releasing of the captives and setting free of the oppressed. We are one with a nature in which this justice is an attribute.
The purpose of the discipleship is this experience. Love, by its very nature, is not something to be talked about as to be experienced. It is not detached reflection but a true seeing, involvement, and transformation.
In this understanding, “seeing” the glory of God cannot be reduced liturgically to a type of divine soothing for the trembling of a fearful heart or be viewed merely as encouragement for those who know they must descend to the darkness of the valley and to the cross. Rather, it is in the sublime encounter itself that significance is found. It is in being immersed and involved with this deep love without conditions that opens us up always to the possibility of rejection. That the one precedes the other is surely a consequence of our mountaintop experience.
For this reason, perhaps Christian life might be interpreted as a perpetual ascent and journey back to the mountain; a continuous journey in search of the divine and a persistent return to the light and wind in which we are continually corrected, reframed, and repositioned. Discipleship is the unceasing quest to bear witness to the glory of God and to see Christ face to face.
But how often do we resist this moment, this light, or at least really being present in it? How often do we view each moment of illumination and glory as a mere means to an end or let our anxiety about what needs to be done preclude a real experience with the divine? How much does a concern for descent hinder encounter with the depth and sublimity of the light, and how frequently do we hurry through moments of exquisite epiphany to get on with the more important work of God? Rather than rushing to the cross, we are invited here to return to the mountain. To stop and be in awe in the presence of the divine: that luminous blaze that is the astonishing and terrifying glory of God.
Yet on the mountain we find ourselves also unexpectedly and unequivocally in the valley, in a manger, with a young mother and her newborn child. We find ourselves face to face with those who suffer and those who continue to be crucified on the crosses of this world, including the mountain and creation herself. It is here that we are confronted with the glory of God; a glory that is found not in the opulent seats of power but in a selfless love, a love that is both sublime and self-emptying; magnificent and disturbing; stunning, brilliant, and resplendent; yet likewise alarming, upsetting, and terrifying. But the point is that to be faced with this glory we are ourselves transfigured and moved in unity with the source of all and with the whole of creation to shine the light of self-giving love and reconciliation into the world in fulfilment of the words of the prophet Isaiah:
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you!
- On epiphany: What mountaintop experiences/encounters have you had in your own life? What encounters might you have missed?
- On “seeing” and “listening”: Where is it that we might see God? What does it mean to listen? What are we listening to?
- On transfiguration: How have these experiences moved, changed, transformed, and/or transfigured you?
- On love and discipleship: How is the glory of God related to love and a life of discipleship?
God of Glory,
You gave the vision of your Son
to those who watched on the mountain;
grant that by our glimpses of Him
we may be changed into his glorious likeness;
For he is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
One God, now and forever. Amen.
A New Zealand Prayer Book: He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa, The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, 1989, Pg. 566
About the author
Tamsyn Kereopa is of Te Arawa & Tuwharetoa descent. She is a PhD candidate with the University of Otago on the topic “A Wahine Māori Theology of Liberation” and a researcher for Te Pihopatanga o Aotearoa. Tamsyn is a member of the WCC Commission on Ecumenical Theological Education & Formation and has been involved with and contributed to the work of the WCC Indigenous Peoples Reference Group. Tamsyn is also a member of the Council for Ecumenism of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia.