The Transfiguration story is strange. Transfiguration literally means “metamorphosis” – a slightly more familiar idea. We know about the metamorphosis of the caterpillar into a butterfly, or the tadpole into a frog. And on Valentine’s Day, perhaps a frog, if you kiss the right one, may be transformed into a prince.
Transfiguration is used interchangeably with Transformation in the NT, and we are familiar with transformations in our own lives. A toddler transforms into a child, a teenager, and then an adult. We choose a direction for our lives, and it changes our character, our mind, and (if we are too sedentary) our waistlines. Marriage, children, illness, success, failure, bereavement, broken relationships – all transform our lives. When I got married, I moved into Paul’s house. As the house gradually transformed from bachelor pad to family home, he protested “Change is baaad.” He likes it really! His palate changed too – I like chilli, and his menu choices progressed from one-chilli dishes to 4-chillie meals. My Sri Lankan friends are amazed at his tolerance, and now I can’t trust him as the chilli-level consultant when I cook for guests.
But Jesus’ transfiguration or transformation is completely different. Heaven broke through and touched Earth, visually and audibly – as it had at His birth and baptism – as it would at his death, resurrection, and ascension.
Like the baptism of Jesus, this is a Trinitarian moment, when the Spirit of God overshadows the mountain and the Father’s voice affirms the Son.
But what does the Transfiguration mean?
The Transfiguration happened at a strategic point in the gospels. Mark’s Gospel is short and dramatic. Written as a single story – without chapter, verse, or section headings to get in the way – it was read by early Christians, who wanted to understand the faith.
Mark’s gospel asks a crucial question throughout, building the answer as it goes. It is a question for all time – for the disciples, for the early church when Mark wrote the gospel 60 years later, and for us, today.
It is the most important question of all time: “Who is this Jesus?”
The Transfiguration is part of the unfolding answer – but one that would only be understood after the resurrection.
The Gospel begins with the baptism of Jesus. God the Father speaks to Jesus declaring: “You are my Son!” Jesus’ actions and words then begin to show who he is. He walks on water, stills the storm, and heals people. He feeds multitudes with loaves and fish.
The miracles were powerful reminders of what God did through the Prophets. The Jews knew that Elijah raised the Widow’s son from the dead; they knew Elijah miraculously provided an endless supply of flour and oil in the famine; they knew the OT story we heard today – that Elijah parted the waters with his mantle and was taken into heaven. Moses, they knew, parted the Red Sea, and miraculously fed the Israelites with manna and quails. Jesus’s miracles were not just marvellous deeds but also signs that linked Jesus to the prophets of the past.
It’s hardly surprising that the people wondered who Jesus was. In his hometown, people were confused. Isn’t he just the Carpenter’s lad, Mary’s son. We know his family? Where – or from whom – did his power and wisdom come?
So, before the Transfiguration, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say I am?” Some thought “Elijah,” for the Jewish Scriptures closed with the prophecy that Elijah would return. Others thought John the Baptist, or another prophet. Then Jesus asks: “Who do you say I am?” and we hear Peter’s famous confession, “You are the Messiah”. A confession made, but not yet fully understood.
The Transfiguration has layers of meaning. It resonated. For Jews, mountains were a place where people encountered God – as Moses did on Sinai, when he received the law; as Elijah did, when he heard the still, small voice of God. And the Cloud was not just rain waiting to happen. God’s Spirit had been present in Cloud throughout the Exodus.
Moses and Elijah’s appearance was significant too. Moses was the law giver, who led Israel out of Egypt; Elijah, the prophet who called Israel back to God. The crowds had been speculating whether Jesus was a prophet, or perhaps Elijah himself. Now the Transfigured Jesus, radiating God’s glory, stands with Elijah and Moses. He is clearly not them. God Himself declares to the disciples: “This is my Son – listen to him!” Jesus is much more than a prophet! He is God’s son, whose coming fulfils both the law and the prophets.
But the disciples are bewildered. This is the Rabbi who walked the dusty streets with them, who got tired and weary, who laughed and wept, who ate and drank with them. The teacher they thought they knew, miracles and all. But here he was, unmistakeably different! This was a moment of absolute transcendence as they looked at Jesus and realised – despite his humanity, he was so terribly and utterly “Other”.
I am a great fan of Doctor Who. In case you haven’t seen the TV series, the Doctor is a Time Lord. Centuries old, he travels through time and space in a blue box, with a human companion. Every few years (when the actor leaves), the Doctor undergoes a regeneration. His body is transformed. He is still the same Doctor, yet different. You often forget that the Doctor is not human. Until, stepping forward with arms outstretched, radiating light and power, he regenerates. Then you know he is the Ancient time Lord who has seen stars born and die. This is what the Transfiguration is. That moment, in the middle of the Gospel, where Jesus blazes and radiates power, visually declaring His divinity.
But the Disciples are terrified, not knowing how to respond. Not recognising Jesus’ divinity, Peter still calls him “Rabbi.” Peter then remembers the OT tent of meeting erected for Moses to meet God. Tents he thinks. That’s what we need.
Then Jesus orders them to tell nobody until he has risen from the dead. But why not?
Jesus knew the Disciples did not yet understand who he was. They could not, until they had witnessed the resurrection. Only then would this Transfiguration make sense – as a demonstration of his divinity. The Transfiguration is a pre-resurrection event that can only be understood completely by post-resurrection people.
And so it proved. In his second epistle, Peter recalls the transfiguration and affirms Christ’s divinity. There is no more talk of Rabbi or a tent. “We were,” he says, “eyewitnesses of his majesty. Christ received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”
Jesus is transfigured before he goes to Jerusalem and his crucifixion which is why we think about it before Lent. It is part of God’s revelation of who Jesus is – God’s beloved Son, who will soon die on a cross, for us and for our salvation.
So, back to Mark’s question: Who, really, is Jesus?
How we answer the question determines how we live. Do we recognise the Jesus of the Transfiguration and Resurrection? Or, are we, as today’s Epistle puts it, blinded by the world, kept from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. Unable to see Jesus, the Son of God. Jesus, Lord of all Creation.
God calls us to live transformed lives that reflect His glory into our world today. Today’s Epistle reminds us, that “the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, in the face of Jesus Christ”.
As we approach Lent, may God give us the grace to see the Transfigured Christ anew. To see, in the words of St Paul’s wonderful hymn in Colossians, “the Christ who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; the one through whom all things in heaven and earth are created… the Christ who is the firstborn from the dead, in whom all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell.”