The transfiguration is one of those things we call a mystery. A mystery is an event or phenomenon that cannot be explained by normal rational or scientific means. In Catholicism the theologians like categorizing and enumerating things and the transfiguration is called the fourth luminous mystery. (The other luminous mysteries include the virgin birth, the baptism of Jesus, and the miracle at the wedding in Cana.) I have always felt that a sanctuary in the bright cold light of a Sunday morning is one of the worst places to try to discuss mysteries. Clearly the lessons we are supposed to derive from mysteries are not meant to be reached by logic or careful reasoning. One part of my own ethnic background is Irish. A cousin of mine researched the spelling of our name and discovered that it was spelled D-o-n-o-g-h back in Ireland. We’re not sure how the spelling was changed. My great grandfather who came over from Ireland was a cooper or barrelmaker and may have been illiterate, so the helpful people at Ellis Island may have spelled it for him. I know that he lived in a neighborhood that was populated mostly by French and Italian immigrants and he may have found he was better accepted with the spelling Donna. Anyway my point is that I think an Irish pub with dimmed lights, pipe smoke, a fire in the fireplace, and maybe a game of darts in the background with a couple of pints of Guinness on the bar would be a much more suitable setting for discussing mysteries. So have a pint and we’ll tell some stories.
So, just to review what happened, remembering from last week, Jesus had asked his disciples “Who do you think that I am?” and Peter responded “You are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Quoting Matthew: “Then he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.” (We should remember that; we’ll hear it again.) And Jesus started telling his disciples about what was in store for him and for them, great suffering. Somehow this didn’t sound like the Messiah that they had been led to expect by scripture. A few days later Jesus, Peter, James and John went high on a mountain. While they were up there the Transfiguration happened: Jesus face and clothes shone like the sun. Moses and Elijah appeared and had a conversation with Christ. Peter offered to build three houses for them (I’ll have more to say about that later), but before he could finish speaking a cloud overshadowed them and a voice sad, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” Peter, James and John hit the dirt in fear, but Jesus came to them touched them and told them not to be afraid. On the way down the mountain Jesus again says “Tell no one about this vision.” So take another sip of Guinness; this story provides a lot of food for thought.
So what about the visit from Elijah and Moses? In Jewish tradition, Elijah is not a stranger but a frequent visitor. Remember Elijah never died but was taken up to heaven alive by fiery chariots. Rabbis in the Talmud frequently encountered Elijah and asked him questions. As you know if you have attended a seder, a seat is reserved for Elijah each year at this traditional meal. Eliezer Segal, who is a professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Calgary, relates his own boyhood experience of welcoming Elijah to the seder: “Since my childhood a special mystique has always been generated by the presence at the Passover seder of a visitor who was never seen, but whose reality was no less tangible for that fact. The unseen guest is of course Elijah the prophet. A special cup filled with wine was set for him, and we all waited impatiently until the moment when one of us would (often with discernible signs of fear at the prospect) open the door to admit the righteous visitor. Our family dog observed his own tradition of barking just before that moment as if he were greeting a more conventional caller. Afterwards we would carefully measure Elijah’s cup to verify that the level of the wine had receded since being poured.” So presumably the disciples were not at all surprised to encounter Elijah.
After his death, Moses is not as ubiquitous as Elijah. Moses has plenty of experience with mountains, of course, but he differs from Elijah in that Moses actually died at the end of his journeys and we don’t hear much about him after that in the Hebrew bible. One of the places where Moses does turn up after his death is in an Islamic story. The story is told in the Hadith, one of the holy books of Islam in addition to the Koran. This, of course, would have been chronologically after the Transfiguration, but the story is too good not to tell. Did you hear the story about how it came to be that Muslims pray five times a day? In Islam there is a version of the ascension in which Mohammed ascends to heaven and encounters God. God commands Muhammed to tell his followers to pray 50 times a day. Although he is surprised and concerned, Muhammed dutifully heads back toward earth to break the news to people. On the way he encounters Moses, who asks Muhammed what God has asked from him. Muhammed tells Moses about the 50 prayers a day, and Moses says “We both know there’s no way that’s going to work. Go back and ask him for something more reasonable.” Moses returns to God and on the way back, Moses again stops him. Muhammed says “This time he asked us to pray only forty times a day!” Moses wisely says “Even that won’t work. Go back.” Finally on his third return trip Muhammed again encounters Moses and tells him, “Well I got it down to five times a day.” Moses says “That will work” and allows Muhammed to return to his people. Back in the Jewish context, it is not surprising to find Moses on a mountain and the disciples would have been reminded of Moses’ descent from Mt. Sinai with the ten commandments inscribed on tablets. So anyway the appearance of Moses and Elijah on a holy mountain was not quite as surprising to Peter, James, and John as it would be to us on a visit to Mt. Washington. Elijah and Moses represented the prophets and the law, which Jesus said he was meant to fulfill.
Then there is the Transfiguration itself in which Jesus face and clothes shine brightly like the sun. Because we’re sitting here in the pub, we’ll agree not to analyze the physical aspects of the Transfiguration with light meters and particle detectors and scientific hypotheses. A more fitting pub question is “What does this remind us of? When have we seen this before?” Of course, in the old testament Moses face shines when he comes down from the mountain and on other occasions when he returns from speaking with God. The shining face and clothes are clearly meant to indicate an encounter with God. The Transfiguration reinforces and makes more meaningful the understanding that the disciples were beginning to have of Jesus as the Messiah, the son of God.
Peter’s offer to build dwellings for Jesus, Moses and Elijah is often seen as a further confirmation of Peter’s awkward and sometimes silly fit into his leadership roll. I think maybe it is not so surprising or unreasonable. There was quite a bit of uncertainty about the whole thing that was happening on the mountain. When Moses went up to the mountain in the Old Testament he spent forty days there, and who knows, this might be another forty-day deal or worse. Maybe the participants would need some shelter. Also it still wasn’t clear what this Messiah thing was all about. It was beginning to look like Jesus was not going to be a powerful military conquerer and king, bringing the oppression of Israel to an end with military power. Maybe this strange occurrence on the mountain was some aspect of Jesus as Messiah, maybe he was going to send orders down from the mountain as God had during Moses time and end the oppression and exert control that way. Maybe Jesus and Moses and Elijah could whup the Romans together and rule from the mountain. Who knows, but in any case a little shelter wouldn’t hurt. So personally I give Peter a pass on his offer of building houses; it may have been an indication of farsightedness and leadership potential.
The Transfiguration is a kind of a turning point. Up to now Jesus has had the task of convincing people that he is the Messiah, topped off by this moment in which he appears in glory and God the father speaks from the cloud. From this point on Jesus has the task of showing people what it actually means for him to be Messiah and for them to be the followers of the Messiah. It won’t be earthly glory and power, in fact it will involve servanthood and suffering, perhaps suffering to the point of death.
So the final verse of today’s gospel is the one about “Tell no one about the vision you have seen today.” This is on top of Jesus earlier injunction not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. Jesus had a good understanding of psychology and a real talent for public relations. I can’t think of a better way of getting yourself to be remembered than to ask people to remember you when they eat and when they drink, something people do several times a day. And Jesus exhibits a deep understanding of human nature when he asks people to tell no one about what they just witnessed. As we know especially from the modern world, leaks happen.
So what does the Transfiguration mean to us, sipping our Guinness and sniffing the pipe smoke? Jesus did not bring down another set of stones with commandments etched in them. He came down with three close friends with an amazing experience, the advice not to be afraid, the sure knowledge that he was the Messiah, and their memories of what he has tried to convey to them over the last three years: His simple command to love that did not need to be inscribed in a stone; the beatitudes; the requirement to be a servant to all; and the injunction to do justice, spread peace, and do mercy. What had become of the law and the prophets? After he entered Jerusalem Jesus was asked by the Pharisees “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus replied “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
And remember: Tell no one about what I have said here today!