Commentary on Matthew 17:1-9
Epiphany is about light, about illumination, about revelation.
Across its Sundays we discover the significance of the Jesus whose birthday we just celebrated. We learn about how the babe born at Bethlehem is also the light of the world as well as about how we as his followers are also called to be light. We are drawn more deeply into an understanding of who and what the infant greeted by shepherds and magi is for us and for all the world and of our role to share what we have learned.
In this regard, I like to think of the Christmas message as a tightly, even intricately packaged Christmas gift which takes us the whole of Epiphany to unwrap and discover. Transfiguration Sunday draws the season to a close, and Matthew’s account provides the nearly perfect bookend to the story of Jesus’ Baptism that we read on the first Sunday of Epiphany.
Make no mistake, “transfiguration” is a strange word, one that you almost never use in everyday speech. Transfiguration Sunday isn’t all that much more familiar, and it is easy for preachers to underestimate how little our hearers know what to make of the day. It is the final Sunday of Epiphany, perhaps the least well understood season of the church year. The relationship to the Baptism of our Lord, the first Sunday in the season, is clear, as we are again invited to listen with the crowds (at Jesus’ Baptism) and disciples (at the Transfiguration) as a voice from heaven announces, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
At the same time, Transfiguration leans unmistakably into Lent, as Jesus comes down from the mountain to head to the death he speaks of during that very descent. The injunction to “listen to him” addressed to Peter, James, and John will become poignant, even painful in the weeks ahead as they regularly fail to do just that, or at least fail to understand what they are listening to. And those same words, when taken as addressed also to us as Jesus’ latest disciples, orient us to listen and watch the Lord of Glory approach his destiny in Jerusalem so that we might more fully comprehend God’s purposes and work in Jesus.
As if all this weren’t enough, Transfiguration also foreshadows Easter. When the disciples fall to the ground in holy awe, the glorified and glowing Jesus comes to them, touches them (elsewhere in Matthew a sign of healing), and commands them not just to stand up but literally to “be raised!” Jesus then commands them not to speak of this event until he himself has been raised, this time from death. There is something about this day, this event, that can’t be understood until after the resurrection.
Attention to Detail
Our confusion about Transfiguration Sunday moves beyond both linguistic and liturgical considerations, as biblical scholars have also regularly failed to understand the role this scene plays in the larger gospel narratives. It comes something out of nowhere, in each gospel playing to a greater or lesser degree a pivotal mark in the narrative (most noticeably in Luke), but not clearly connected to what comes immediately before or after. In Matthew’s account, the Transfiguration occurs six days — perhaps recalling the six days the cloud enveloped Mount Sinai before speaking to Moses in today’s reading from Exodus — after Jesus’ first prediction of his passion and his rebuke of Peter (presumably) outside Caesarea Philippi (16:21-23). It is followed by more passion predictions and the continuing story of Jesus’ ministry in and around Galilee and his impending journey to Jerusalem. Clearly a “mountain top experience,” it is nevertheless challenging to see how the account contributes to or advances Matthew’s story of Jesus. For this reason, we can probably focus with confidence primarily on the details of the account itself. Of these, two deserve particular attention.
First, Peter’s reaction may seem odd to hearers, but some New Testament scholars suggest that it is the appropriate cultic response to what is, quite literally, an epiphany, a manifestation of divine presence. Peter wishes to make a booth, a tent, a tabernacle — perhaps referencing the Jewish festival of Tabernacles — by which to offer lodging for these historic and significant religious figures. Others see in Peter’s suggestion less a cultic response and more the desire to preserve the event, to capture something of the magnificence of the moment. Still others — and perhaps especially our hearers — have been struck by this as characteristic of Peter and many of us: when encountered by something beyond our reckoning, our first inclination is to do something, anything! However you read the impetus for Peter’s suggestion, it is notable that in Matthew the voice from heaven actually interrupts him, cutting him off in order first to pronounce Jesus blessed and then to command the attention of the disciples. Whatever Peter — or we — may have been thinking, that is, there is only one thing that is needful: to listen to him, the beloved One.
Second, when all is over — when Moses and Elijah are gone, the voice is quiet, Jesus’ face and clothing have returned to normal, and the disciples are left in holy awe — all that is left is Jesus. Whatever all these signs and symbols may have meant, the disciples are once again with their Lord, their teacher, their friend. This is perhaps one of the signature characteristics of Matthew. Jesus, the one whose clothes and face shone like the sun, the one equal to Moses and Elijah, the one whom the very heavens proclaim as God’s own beloved Son, will not leave them.
When all else fades — and indeed, soon enough all will become dark indeed — yet Jesus remains, reaching out in help and healing. At the very close of Matthew’s account, he will gather with these and all of his disciples on another mountain, and promise that he will be with them even to the close of the age.
Most of us have had mountain top experiences and can testify to their importance to our lives. But all of us have also had to return to the valley. At both places, and all those in between, Jesus is there, reaching out to raise us to life again.