"Who Glows?": Understanding the Transfiguration and Our Own Mountaintop Experiences

You’ve all seen it: An advertising team is gathered to brainstorm ideas for some ads for their national hotel chain, and one of the members of the ad team lays out his idea of what really satisfied customers look like. He says, as they walk through the lobby of this most splendid hotel, that they are literally glowing, surrounded by haloed light – smiling big smiles. The scene just shouts satisfied travelers! But, the designer of this ad is met with skepticism by an officious onlooker, a man who is clearly not a member of the ad team but there solely to promote his own multi-syllabic and percussive slogan, “Badda-book. . . Badda-boom.” And, his self-satisfied challenge is, ”Who glows? People don’t glow.”

He’s right: people don’t glow. Of course, we often say that someone looked so happy that they glowed, but that is about a state of mind, and not the real flesh-glowing physical incidence. So, yes, who glows?

Well, several in this week’s lessons do, as you, no doubt, heard. Glowing people – both on mountains and descending from mountains. So, as with all of scripture, we must look for the truth in the passage, and not get distracted by trying to explain the unexplainable. Mountains do play a significant role in many places in the Bible, and we, Pacific Northwesterners, can relate to that.

We live in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, in my opinion. The Pacific Northwest is a wonderful combination of water and mountains, of sky and land, of trees and rivers and inlet sounds. We are blessed by being surrounded by such beauty. And, many of us really like getting out in that beauty.

Some folks prefer the shoreline and the water – salty or fresh – while others would rather experience the creation from a hill or mountain, and there are plenty of opportunities to do just that around here. We are among one of eight states with peaks above 14,000 feet, and you can, from Whidbey Island, see the majesty of both the Cascades and the Olympics, plus the glitter of the surrounding Puget Sound waters. 
Mountain folks enjoy the experience of hiking and climbing through densely wooded forests, over logs and bridges (some logs are bridges!). They wear lots of gear – including sturdy waterproof shoes – and carry backpacks or day packs, in which hats, lunches, water, bug repellent, first-aid kits, and the all-important Ten Essentials: nine pair of clean, dry socks and a plastic bag to put the wet ones in. There is always the odd fall into a stream. I know; I’ve slipped and gone in. Most of the goal is to get to the top, or the BIG vista. However, it’s been my experience that arriving at the top is equally satisfying for hikers as is the time spent walking uphill through deep forests. Today’s scripture, both the Old Testament and the Gospel, call us to consider mountaintop experiences. The glow, I believe, is a secondary or even tertiary event.

Getting to the mountaintop is the thing, but hiking up a steep hill is agony. Carrying a backpack with all that stuff in it on a sunny day causes strained muscles, over-exertion, perspiration, and the need to blame someone for all that misery. Whose idea was it to come here today when the chairs are all set up on the deck and I have a new book to read? Why did YOU drag ME here? That is the theme of the first part of the hike. Torture, grousing, and gnashing of teeth. Then comes the spiritual time. As one rises through a forest and out and above the tree line, the smells change, the air thins, and everything is different than it was back at the car and even in the forested area. A sense of euphoria begins as you realize you are winning the fight with gravity, and your lunch site is all within view. That is where it’s at, at the mountaintop.

I imagine Peter, James, and John might have experienced some of those feelings following Jesus up the mountain that day. I can picture it, having visited Mount Tabor (one of the two most agreed-upon sites for the Transfiguration), last year as a pilgrim in the Holy Lands. We took a hair-raising car ride up startling switchbacks – more than I could count. But this group of disciples climbed in the heat and, probably, in sandals. It was arduous work, and they must have resented Jesus dragging them up the hill, but they were on their way to pray, and they had been asked by Jesus to follow him, and so they did. They were probably feeling very happy to reach the top of the mountain, just as I feel at my destination in the Cascades.

I think it’s interesting that in Luke, the mountain is referred to, and not a mountain.  Maybe it was a mountain with which they were all familiar, the mountain Jesus always chose when he was in the area, or maybe it was because every mountain, no matter where it was, was a dead ringer for the mountain that was so important in the Hebrew imagination. Once the people of Israel had beheld Mount Sinai smoking with the presence of God, there were no more “a” or indeterminate mountains ever again. Every mountain was the mountain: the place where God, in all God’s power and glory, might be encountered again.

And there, on the mountaintop, Peter, James, and John experienced the epitome of mountaintop experiences. There in front of them, God revealed Jesus’ identity as the Chosen. Luke wrote that while Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothing became dazzling white. Then came the appearance of two other figures, Moses the lawgiver, and Elijah the prophet. These two familiar characters gave much credence to the Messiahship of Jesus. It proclaimed, in an ethereal sort of way, that Jesus was the Messiah. And the disciples realized that they were in the presence of God and were forever changed.

Jesus was transfigured on the mountain. He was not transformed. 'Transfigured' implies a revealing of one’s true nature. 'Transformation' implies a remaking of the nature of a person or object. Jesus, by his transfiguration, revealed his true nature, and his disciples were granted a vision of who he really is – as God the father sees him and loves him. The disciples were finally able to see through the husk of his body to the soul of his being and power. And in doing so, they were transformed. What they saw invites us to a life lived in God and our own transformations.

Jesus’ transfiguration really parallels Moses’ encounter with YHWH on Mount Sinai. We really do not know what happened there on the mountain either time, and so too much analysis of it is speculation. But what we do know is that when Jesus and the three returned to where they started, they did not talk about their experience.

Modern theologians, though – they have not stopped talking about it.  Many keep analyzing it, handling it, wearing it down until some one of them says something scholarly about it, and that is a problem because we try to put it in some category that we know about, and end up wondering “Who glows?”  But, like the burning bush and the parting of the Red Sea, or the voice in the whirlwind for Job, it is difficult to find such a category, so perhaps all we need to know that it was an intensely private and meaningful moment between Jesus and God, and then wonder what it has to say about our own meaningful moments with God.

But, to me, the greater learning in this story of the Transfiguration is in two other aspects of the passage.

One is that voice from the cloud: “This is my son, my Chosen; listen to him.” Good advice for Peter, James, and John. Good advice for you and for me. Listen to Jesus – even a couple of millennia later… listen to his words of inclusion and love.

The second thing is in what they did upon returning to civilization. They told nobody. They kept silent. Probably what they saw that day would have been enough to run to the newspapers and get the presses started. This would have been live covered with cameraed drones and eyewitness accounts if it happened today. But for Peter, James, and John, a newness had taken them. They had been changed by what happened on the mountain. Biblical scholars sometimes credit their silence about that experience with fear. That sounds plausible in light of the unexplainable, but what if their reticence was more about something else? What if obeying God was at the root of their behavior? And, what if obeying God is at the root of our behavior? The deep relationship between God and human might best be left to silence.

In a world of noise and chaos, in a world fraught with news that makes us afraid, defensive, and angry, wouldn’t it be very fine if we learned instead to be silent and to listen? To listen instead of expound? In the midst of hurts and disappointments and life’s expectations not met, wouldn’t it be wonderful for each one of us to learn to be still and to listen for God’s call to us, for God’s words to us, instead of our words to God and our neighbors? What would our world look and act like if we learned to listen and understand rather than listen only in preparation for our turn to speak? How would the world be different, even if all of us here did that? How many people each week would experience a holy listener? Or one who is wrapped in silence more often than in spreading sound? How would our world be different if we taught our children as much about being still and listening as we teach them to speak and to write?

And how would our politics be different if all of us listened more, and argued or slung mud less? How would we be improved if we, as a culture, learned to listen, especially to those who might look different than we do?

In his book, Bread for the Journey, Roman Catholic priest and theologian Henri Nouwen wrote this:

To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept. . . The beauty of listening is that those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.

In silence, as Jesus and the three disciples did, and in holy listening of others, we can become more Christlike, and become agents of change in the world, to bring about healing and reconciliation.

"We have been to the mountain top during our Epiphany and Christmas celebrations. We are still on the mountaintop today, but we must descend, back down through the scree and into the forests and then out into life. Lent is almost here, and it calls us to silence ourselves, to learn, and perhaps to listen more; and in the listening, we really can hear God. We will be changed as we do and others along with us. That change shines in the world. Go then, be agents of change in the world, by the power and glory of Jesus, who was revealed by God in the Transfiguration."

Photo by Tanyushka on Reshot