Most liturgically-oriented churches celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration in August. However, a number of churches celebrate the Transfiguration on the last Sunday of Epiphany, which is also the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. This is, in fact, entirely appropriate, inasmuch as the Transfiguration, in all three synoptics, is narrated immediately after Jesus begins the process of informing his disciples of his impending arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection.
This was a crisis point in the life of the Christ and in the drama of our redemption. The contrast could hardly be greater. One day, Jesus is telling his disciples about the humiliating betrayal and cruel death he is about to undergo in Jerusalem. Just a few days later, he is on a high mountain, his face shining like the sun, and his clothes as bright as a flash of lightning. On the one hand, this transfiguration is an anticipation of that great day when Christ will come in glory with all his holy angels. On the other hand, it is also a replication of the “glory I had with you before the world began” (John 17:5). This event, one in which Jesus experiences a foretaste of his future glory, and is provided a reminder of the glory which he had before—one can easily see how it could serve as a crisis and temptation for Jesus. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the devil had taken Jesus to a “high mountain” and given him the opportunity to have all the kingdoms of the world if he would fall down and worship the devil, thus bypassing the cross on the way to the crown. At that time, Jesus had said, “Get behind me, Satan.” And now, just a few days before this Transfiguration experience, the temptation had reared its ugly head again, in the words of Peter, “Never Lord, this shall never happen to you.” And Jesus, seeing through Peter, saw the tempter, and again cried out, “Get behind me, Satan.” But, now, on this “high mountain,” his face and clothes shining brightly, carrying on a conversation with Moses and Elijah, and about to have a tabernacle built for him by Peter, James, and John—could it be that Peter was right? After all, just before Peter had made his outburst, Jesus had declared him to be a recipient of special revelation from God (“this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven”). Perhaps Jesus might listen more carefully. Perhaps, when Peter cried out, “This shall never happen to you,”—perhaps that was revelation too.
So, to be sure, if Jesus, in this experience of both prior and anticipated glory, with the words of Peter ringing in his ears, had been tempted to see in these things the voice of the Father indicating that there has been a change in plans—you don’t have to go to the cross; you don’t have to wait; you can have the full experience of the glory now—it would be completely understandable. But Jesus does not succumb to the temptation. And even as he shines in glory on the mountain, when he chooses the topic of conversation with Moses and Elijah, his choice is to talk about “his departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” In a moment of shining glory, Jesus chose to talk about his death.
This transfiguration experience is a perfect picture of what is described in Philippians 2:
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
This is what the Transfiguration is all about. Whether you are in one of those liturgical churches which will celebrate this feast tomorrow, or in one that will not, or not even in a liturgical church at all, perhaps you can still take some time to meditate, this Sunday before Ash Wednesday, on what Christ did in refusing to “stay in the moment” on top of that mountain, choosing instead to set his face steadfastly like a flint toward Jerusalem, and to accomplish our redemption. All glory to Jesus.
Eve of Transfiguration Sunday
February 14, 2015