Hope and Love on the Way of the Cross: The Transfiguration of Jesus
Jesus’ Transfiguration reveals in all its fullness the mind-boggling nature of his voluntary act of self-sacrifice. This voluntary act of self-sacrifice has a name — and that name is Love.
Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white. And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Eli’jah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, and when they wakened they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”–not knowing what he said. As he said this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silence and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.
Epiphany, the season between Christmas and Lent, is a celebration of the wonderful, saving truth that the Creator of the universe has made Himself known to His creation. Almighty God, He who is unknowable, incomprehensible, infinite, and uncreated, has become fully present and physically tangible to all of humanity. How has He accomplished this impossible task? By becoming a human being Himself. The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. God has revealed Himself fully to the whole world in the person of Jesus Christ. This is our Epiphany celebration.
It is quite fitting then, that on the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany, we celebrate the Transfiguration of Our Lord. The Transfiguration is the consummation – or the climax – of Epiphany. This mysterious and miraculous event on the mountaintop is an unmistakable reminder that the tender infant in the manger, the small boy presented in the temple, the young man baptized in the waters of the Jordan, is in truth the God of the universe.
What happened on that mountaintop?
In St. John’s gospel, Jesus says, “I and the Father are one,” (John 10.30) and “he who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14.9). At his Transfiguration these words are mystically fulfilled.
The light that shone so brightly that day was not a light shining down from heaven upon Jesus. It was the uncreated light of God Himself, bursting forth from within Jesus. For just a moment, Peter, James, and John beheld the Lord Jesus Christ in all his radiant glory: God of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father.
It’s hard to blame these disciples for their excited bewilderment. It must have been a disorienting experience. Quite naturally, they mistake this event as somehow being the end of all they had been waiting for: the end of their journey, the end of their mission. Peter is ready to build booths, to set up camp and stay awhile. But Jesus’ Transfiguration is not the end of his mission; in fact, the mission has only just begun. While the disciples are ready to stay put, Jesus is on the move.
Where is he headed?
The calendar of the church year shows us the way . . . twice, actually. Some of you may know that we celebrate the Transfiguration not only at the end of Epiphany, but again every August 6th. In both cases, this glorious event marks the beginning of a much darker road. Our celebration today takes place on the cusp of a 40-day journey that leads us straight to the cross. (Yes, that’s a reference to Lent). Likewise on August 6th, if you count forward 40 days you will land on September 14th, which is the feast of the Holy Cross. The calendar models the life of Our Lord who, after revealing himself as God on one mountaintop, begins his journey towards another: that of Calvary.
Which brings us to our final question: why the Transfiguration? What is its purpose and meaning? The answer is realized some 40 days into the future… on the cross.
Jesus’ revelation to his disciples is a gift to them. It is a vision of hope: of promised resurrection and future glory. They are given this vision to carry with them as they journey the way of the cross with Jesus.
We too must take the Transfiguration with us, on our journey to the cross.
Now you may think, “Well, I wasn’t there on top of that mountain.” But consider this. Many of us have experienced our own revelations of God in the person of Jesus Christ: those times when God has made Himself known to us in profound and unmistakable ways along the road of life.
These experiences are given to us for the very same reason the Transfiguration is given to the disciples: to be visions of hope, of promised resurrection and future glory. They are gifts to us especially for those darker periods in our lives, when we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death. God gives us these experiences to take with us as we journey the way of the cross with Our Lord. They are sure and certain reminders that He is real, that we are not alone, that He is with us in our suffering, just as He is in our times of deliverance and celebration.
The Transfiguration is God’s gift to us, a gift of the vision of hope at the foot of the cross.
But that is only the beginning.
The connection between the Transfiguration and the cross goes far deeper than this; it reveals to us the motive of the mission itself.
However, for this we must set the stage.
The Transfiguration is not the first time God has revealed Himself. Throughout the course of salvation history, He has done so in a variety of ways to a select few. One such revelation was to Moses on top of Mt. Sinai. Yet, as God says to Moses at that moment, “no man shall see my face and live.” (Exodus 33.20). So on that mountain with Moses, God literally covers Moses with His hand as He passes by Him — that he might live.
In another revelation, with the prophet Elijah, God does not come to him in a violent earthquake, or a raging fire, but rather in a gentle wind, so that Elijah would remain unharmed.
And so it is with Peter, James, and John. At the Transfiguration they witness the revelation of Almighty God: the voice of the Father, the glory of the Son, and the cloud of the Spirit enveloping them. They are privileged to behold the All-Holy Trinity . . . and live!
God says, “No man shall see my face and live.” Jesus says, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Christ’s identity as God is fully revealed at his Transfiguration.
And yet, this is the same Christ who will be betrayed in the garden. This is the same Christ who will stand before Pilate and be condemned to death. This is the same Christ who will be whipped and thrashed by the soldiers. This is the same Christ who will fall repeatedly into the dust of the earth under the weight of the cross.
This is the same Christ who will be stripped of his garments, nailed to the wood, pierced in the side.
This same Christ, who on the mount of Transfiguration shines with the pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven, will on the mount of Calvary die on the cross.
Here we see a most significant connection between the Transfiguration and the cross: the revelation of the divinity of Jesus at the Transfiguration is confirmation that his blessed passion and precious death were voluntary.
The Transfiguration is confirmation of Jesus’ own words, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father” (John 10.18). And again at his arrest in the garden, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26.53)
No soldier or bystander could have withstood the glory of God in the face of Christ. It is of Jesus’ own free will that he allows them to destroy him. For their sake even — for their own deliverance from the power of sin and death — he sustains them in grace as they put him to death.
Jesus’ Transfiguration reveals in all its fullness the mind-boggling nature of this voluntary act of self-sacrifice. And this voluntary act of self-sacrifice has a name — and that name is Love.
Love, by definition, is voluntary. It is not mandatory. It is free. It is not something we have to do. It is something we desire to do, not counting the cost. Love is what we give, regardless of what we get in return.
The Transfiguration reveals for us the essence of Christ’s pure love for us on the cross: to be by very nature God, and to freely and voluntarily lay down his life for his friends.
True love is the motive of the mission.
True love . . . dies on the cross.
On the cross, Jesus is patient and kind; he is not jealous or boastful.
On the cross, Jesus is not arrogant or rude; he does not insist on his own way.
On the cross, Jesus is not irritable or resentful; he does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.
On the cross, Jesus bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. The love and life that Jesus gives to us on the cross . . . never ends.
Made in God’s image, we too are free to walk in love, just as Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us. Beloved, let us pick up our cross, and follow him.
Happy Valentine’s Day.