As in a morning field. Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
-Edwin Muir, Transfiguration
Why talk about the transfiguration of Jesus during the time of COVID-19? For one, to provide a respite from the incessant fear-mongering pouring out from the 24/7 news cycle and with it the cloying “We are all in this together” and the Orwellian “Heroes” pronounced upon us for submitting to anti-social, anti-human behavior. A more important reason is to lift our sights above charts, graphs and, metrics that want to encapsulate Pareto-ized lives at this time.
The gospels document Peter, James and John’s mountain top eye-witness account of the transfiguration: Matthew 17: 1-8, Mark 9: 2-8, Luke 9: 28-36. Peter recalls it in his second letter: 2 Peter 1: 16-18.
When we made known to you the power and appearing of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, you see, we were not following cleverly devised myths. Rather, we were eyewitnesses of his grandeur. For when he received honor and glory from God the father, a voice spoke to him from the Wonderful Glory, “This is my son, my beloved one, in whom I am well pleased.” We heard his voice, spoken from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain.
John alludes to the transfiguration in his gospel. (John 1:14):
And the word became flesh, and lived among us. We gazed upon his glory, glory like that of the father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Recall that Moses, tasked by God to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, wanted a handle on things. Overwhelmed, he wanted to know who will go with him to make the exodus happen. God replied:
My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.
Moses, anxious about his new vocation, wanted further clarity and security:
Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”
God accepts Moses’ request, as God wants to reveal Himself to Moses (and the people of Israel).
And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”
Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”
Moses was not allowed to see God’s face. But the glory of God shone so much onto him during his encounters with God that his face was radiant. So radiant, in fact, that he had to wear a veil whenever he returned to the people (Exodus 34: 35).
The transfiguration –Moses and Elijah standing with Jesus in dazzling light (representing the Law and the Prophets and the New Covenant) – had an earth-shattering effect on the earthlings. Peter wanted to get a handle on all this. He began to speak, formalizing and institutionalizing what he sees (as many have done since). But then God spoke …
When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground and were terrified. And Jesus came to them and touched them and said, “Get up, and do not be afraid.” And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus Himself alone. (Matthew 17: 6-8)
An unmasking, a revelation, had occurred. God Very God could be seen in a glorified human form. The transfiguration happened once. But similar revelations happened throughout the gospels. It happened earlier when Jesus read Isaiah in the synagogue. And, later, at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. The veil of the holy of holies was torn from top to bottom and a Roman Centurion, standing at the foot of the cross, said “This fellow really was god’s son.”
The same thing happened when the disciples “recognized” Jesus after his resurrection. And, when Paul encountered Jesus on the Damascus road. And it will happen when we see him as he is and all faces will look upon him. John makes a point in his gospel (and letters) about recognizing Jesus.
John’s only gospel reference to the transfiguration, we gazed upon his glory, could be seen as the theme of his gospel account. “Look! There’s God’s lamb!” “Come and see.” Remove your blindness. Look at Jesus. See in his human face the living God.
Do you think that Peter, James and John were radiant after they saw the human face of the living God? Do you think that they veiled their wonder and joy when they returned to the people? Do you think they came away with a whole new understanding of the infinite-personal God?
The transfiguration of Jesus is not a day on the church calendar or a cool yet detached-from-earth-reality event. No. Rather, it is God coming to his creation – his temple -and revealing Himself to us. What did God reveal to His image bearers, the keepers of His temple? He disclosed his glory, grace and truth – and not in generic theological terms. He revealed in person the character and personhood of God. He spoke. He is aware of his creation. He has a will. He is good.
The luminous transfiguration of Jesus allowed Peter, James and John a glimpse of ultimate reality. It also threw light onto where they lived: a world darkened by disease and evil. Yet, as the texts also reveal, the transfiguration offered no escape route (no Rapture) for Peter, James and John to leave this troubled world. No Jesus comes down the mountain with them. Without social distancing. Without a mask. In doing so, he reiterates without words what they had already heard in the Moses account: My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.
So be it in the days of COVID-19.