In the Transfiguration encounter, the disciples see Jesus in a new light. They already know Jesus is the Son of God, but on the mountaintop they experience that reality in a way that leaves them spiritually transformed and strengthened for the darkness that lies ahead.
Vicar Bristol Reading
Transfiguration of Our Lord, year A
Texts: 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
For the Apollo astronauts on missions to the moon, one of the most transformative experiences was actually looking back at the earth. Seeing their own planet from tens of thousands of miles away was so moving that many of them spoke about it for years after. Eugene Cernan, one of the Apollo 17 crew members, put it this way: “What I was seeing, and even more important what I was feeling at that moment in time, science and technology had no answers for.” He used the words spiritual, dynamic, beautiful, and overwhelming. He wasn’t the only one to describe the experience of seeing earth from space as a mystical one. Apollo 14’s Edgar Mitchell said he had felt an ecstatic sense of oneness and connectedness. He called it an epiphany.
Of course, the astronauts knew, before they ever went to space, what the planet was like. They knew that earth was round, that it was mostly water, that it was covered in a swirling atmosphere. Still, the experience of actually witnessing it was nothing short of a revelation. A radical change in perspective allowed them to see something they already knew in a way that left them transformed. It wasn’t about facts; they already knew the facts. It was about feeling. And they carried that feeling with them, even after they returned to earth’s surface, searching for words to convey what they’d witnessed.
Do you think that’s how Peter, James, and John felt after experiencing the transfiguration of Jesus? They’d seen a sight that was certainly spiritual, dynamic, beautiful, and overwhelming, a sight that was hard to put into words. They’d had an epiphany – literally –the light of divine power shining into the physical world. Matthew tells us that Jesus face and clothes blazed like the sun, the whole mountain was shrouded in a bright cloud, and the voice of God proclaimed: “Jesus is my beloved son. Listen to him.”
Now, the disciples already knew this. They have already seen and heard that Jesus is the Son of God. These are his closest followers, after all. They’ve seen him heal the sick, and still storms, and multiply fish, and walk on water! John the Baptist had certainly mentioned that Jesus was the Son of God. Even exorcised demons admitted that Jesus was the son of God. And Jesus himself had said as much to these same disciples, telling them, “All things have been handed over to be my by father, and no one knows the father except the Son.” In fact, only days before the transfiguration, Jesus had asked Peter directly, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter had said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The disciples already understood that Jesus was the Son of God.
But it is one thing to know a theological truth; it is another thing entirely to have God Almighty declare it to you directly while blinding you with light on the top of a mountain. Jesus is shining like a beacon, and the ghosts of prophets past have shown up to chat with him. The disciples seem relatively okay with all of that; Peter is ready with a religiously appropriate response. But then the voice of God thunders “Listen!” and they are simply overcome. They find that they can’t even stand in the face of this epiphany.
They’re seeing the teacher and friend they know so well in a whole new light. Here, right in front of them, is the incarnate Word, Emmanuel, Son of God, love’s pure light, touching them, lifting them up, and comforting them. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus says. That is the word of God that needs to be listened to: “Do not be afraid.”
The disciples have been brought to their knees by this moment, but they need to get up, get going, get down the mountain, and get back to the work of proclaiming and living the Gospel. And they will need courage and strength to do so. This moment has changed them. We say that it is Jesus who was transfigured, but the disciples also have been transformed. And undoubtedly they will carry this experience with them into everything that is to come.
Jesus tells them not to talk about it for now, but perhaps they would have struggled to find adequate words anyway. How do you describe an epiphany? How do you express something that is beyond language? These disciples have been “eyewitnesses to Christ’s majesty,” as 2 Peter says, and they will hold onto that memory like a lamp shining in the dark.
And it will get dark. They will need this reminder of the light, this reminder to not be afraid.
The transfiguration reaches back to the incarnation, to the light of Christ coming into the world as a tiny baby: Jesus, a human being, fully radiating God’s glory, the finite somehow containing the infinite. But the transfiguration also reaches toward the Passion, toward the cross, when darkness presses in on the light of Christ from all sides, threatening to swallow the light whole.
Jesus has told the disciples that he will face suffering and death, but they have been adamantly resistant. Peter actually confronts Jesus at one point when Jesus says he must be killed. Peter pulls him aside and says: “God forbid it! This must never happen to you!” But it will happen to him. And, even then, even on the cross, the light of Christ will still be fully radiating God’s glory. The light will not ever be overpowered, even by death.
But that will be hard to see and understand for those living through it, like Peter. The disciples will need the memory of this mountaintop encounter to reorient them in the confusing and grief-filled times to come.
You are about to take that journey to the cross with them. This is the end of the season of Epiphany, and we move now into the season of Lent. And perhaps you, too, will need this light to carry into the dark. The light is a gift that is meant to sustain you when the path is filled with sorrow and pain; to bring you courage when your fear has brought you to your knees; to give you strength when you need get back up and get back to the work of living the Gospel.
Even if you know, theologically, that Jesus is the Son of God, you may still need to come back to this mountaintop so you can feel it. In your heart, in your spirit, in your bones.
You do not have to make sense of every spiritual encounter with the living God. You do not have to come up with a religiously appropriate response. You do not have to find the right words to explain what it means to you. Sometimes it is enough simply to be present to it, to be awed by it, and to treasure God’s word of loving comfort: Don’t be afraid. The light is there even when it’s hard to see, and the darkness will never, ever overcome it.
 To read more about these astronaut quotes, see Hendrik Hertzberg, “Moon Shots (3 of 3): Lunar Epiphanies,” The New Yorker, August 12, 2008, https://www.newyorker.com/news/hendrik-hertzberg/moon-shots-3-of-3-lunar-epiphanies.
 John 1:34
 Matthew 8:29
 Matthew 11:27
 Matthew 16:16
 2 Peter 1:19
 Matthew 16:22