The Transfiguration: A Note from the Rector

August 6 (the day I am writing this) is the Feast of the Transfiguration.  The pivotal event is Jesus’ life is narrated in the three Gospels: Mark. 9:1-9, Matthew 16:28-17:9, Luke 9:27-36.  The story is mysterious.  Christ takes the disciples, Peter, James and John with him to the top of Mount Tabor.  There, they are overshadowed by a cloud.  Suddenly Jesus, his face, and even his clothing shine with a bright and terrifying light.  Moses and Elijah are seen next to him, conversing with him.  A thundering voice from heaven declares, “This is my son, my beloved, listen to him!”  

The disciples are rightly terrified.  Peter, not really knowing what to do, suggests that they build a tabernacle or shelter for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  It is almost as if Peter wanted to crystalize this wondrous moment, to hold onto it and keep it from ending.  But that is impossible, for this moment on top of the mountain is just a fleeting glimpse of some greater glory that Peter won’t be able to comprehend or even articulate until much later.

Mount Tabor was one of my favorite destinations when Deb and I visited the Holy Land in 2019.  After a long, twisted van ride up the mountain, we entered the enormous, early 20th century church that is built amongst the ruins of a more ancient church and monastery.  Ironically, within the church there are three altars, the main altar dedicated to Christ, and two side chapels which are dedicated to Elijah and Moses.  The 20th century architects seem to have intentionally followed St. Peter’s suggestion and built a tabernacle for the three participants of the Transfiguration.  Every church building, including that Church of the Transfiguration, is built holding a fundamental tension.  On the one hand, places can be holy places, and buildings can point us toward the transcendent.  On the other, the mysterious presence of God, and the radiance of Jesus Christ are wholly beyond our ability to enclose within any space whatsoever, beyond are ability to fully comprehend or articulate.  Of the resources that we humans try to use to articulate God’s mystery, artistic beauty—lovely architecture, art, music—might be the truest.  But even these expressions ultimately fall short.  

The Transfiguration should be understood as a glimpse into the future.  At a moment in the narrative of Christ’s life, when he “sets his face toward Jerusalem” and begins his final journey toward his destiny, which includes betrayal and death, the Transfiguration foreshadows the way the story ends: we see a glimpse of Christ in all his resurrection glory.  Some images of the event highlight this theological truth by depicting Christ on the mount of Transfiguration with the wounds of his future crucifixion visible in the midst of his radiant glory.  

We, too, see our future.  Though we remain on this side of the “veil of tears,” Christ has promised not to leave us in this state.  He is God’s Son, and the Beloved One. We should listen to him. Even now, through Christ, God is in the midst of transfiguring all that is broken, confused, and lost.  And that includes us.

If you are in the mood, I invite you to listen to a song about the Transfiguration by the singer and songwriter, Sufjan Stevens.  A practicing Christian, Stevens’ music often contemplates biblical imagery and themes and, in so doing, translates them for his broad popular audience.  You can find Stevens’ song, “The Transfiguration” on Youtube.  

If you’re like me, once you start listening to music on Youtube, it’s hard to stop.  So, here is Stevens along with Chris Thile singing a haunting version of the Good Friday hymn (Hymn 158, in our hymnal), “Ah, Holy Jesus.” The audience joins in.  It is striking that it is a recording of an NPR radio show, not a church service.  God’s glory, also known as Christ’s radiance, also known as True Beauty can be glimpsed almost anywhere.  

Author: jstambaugh

Rector of Church of the Holy Apostles, Penn Wynne, an Episcopal Church in Wynnewood, PA.

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