Last week, Isaac began his sermon by saying he only trusts stories that mention food. I found no food in the Transfiguration story. This concerned me, so I tried my own rule: I decided I only trust stories that include levitation.
Which put me at ease, until I realized there’s no levitation in the Transfiguration story. Not in the text, anyway. Not explicitly. It’s in the images depicting the story. In the iconography of the Transfiguration, sometimes Jesus’s feet don’t touch the ground, while the disciples remain anchored to the earth. We see them up on a high mountain, Christ radiant, shining like the sun. Blinding rays of light spread into the world from Christ’s center. On either side of him, Moses and Elijah are usually perched on rocks, slightly below Jesus. Behind Christ, there is often a dark background, sometimes with stars, to show Christ revealing the depths of heaven. It is something like the story Hindus tell of the infant Krishna — his mother tells him to open his mouth to see if he’s been eating dirt; she looks at the dark interior of his throat, and sees the whole universe.
In the Transfiguration, three disciples are there — a bright cloud overshadows them, and they fall to the ground, terrified. They are overcome by fear. Overpowered, overwhelmed, surmounted. This is fear that scatters, separates. They hear a voice from the cloud say, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” And the disciples are sprawled on the ground, trying to protect themselves from some horror. In the images, Peter raises one hand to cover his face. John crouches on his knees, bent toward the ground. James is sometimes pictured flat on his back. This is fear that sends them into their self-protections. Then Jesus goes to them, touches them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” When they look up, Jesus is alone.
What is it that terrifies the disciples?
Why, in a threatening world, can they believe Jesus when he says, “Do not be afraid.”
There is a similar fear in the book of Exodus. When Moses comes down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, he does not know, the story tells us, “that the skin of his face shone because he was talking with God.” When everyone saw Moses, “the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.”
The radiance of God on a human face terrifies the beholders. Moses must wear a veil to calm their fears. In the dazzling face of the transfigured Christ, a veil is lifted. Here the glory of God is revealed in a fully human life, and it is unbearable. We cannot bear its vulnerability, its frailty, its beauty — its total dependence on God.
So the Transfiguration recalls Moses on Mount Sinai, and there are other echoes, too, allusions in the Transfiguration that span the biblical narrative. Here Christ and the three disciples go up to the mountain after six days, the radiance of God like the seventh day of Creation. It also sends us to the baptism of Jesus — where the sky opens up, and the spirit of God descends like a dove, and the listeners hear a voice that repeats what is heard here on the mountain: “You are my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The Spirit of God opens the sky to the heavens; The Spirit of God overshadows with a bright cloud. The dove descends to touch Jesus in baptism; the transfigured Jesus bends down to place a hand on his terrified friends.
The story and its depictions also send us to the Crucifixion. Jesus is seen in the middle, elevated, with Moses and Elijah on either side — an allusion to Golgotha, Jesus suspended on the cross between two others. We read this story before Lent to remind us not to see either Transfiguration or Crucifixion in isolation — in the transfigured Christ, we see what the world does, what we do, to the glory of God shone in Christ’s face; we see the horror of Golgotha, the death of Christ coming. And in the Crucifixion, we are reminded not to forget, in the sorrow of Christ’s suffering, the endurance of God’s radiant love. And finally, the Transfiguration echoes the resurrection appearances, when Christ will repeat what he says here: “Do not be afraid.”
As readers, it is perhaps too easy for us to let the story send us backward and forward in the gospel. We can read the story through to the end. But here, the disciples don’t want to be sent. They want to stay. When Peter sees Jesus’s face shining, he says, “It is good for us to be here.” He wants to make three dwellings. He wants to remain on the mountain. At the bottom of the mountain, there will be death and loss. Christ’s touch and loving word seem to say, “Yes, it is good for us be here, and we cannot stay.”
Peter cannot bear to risk losing the world he imagined. God’s light does not give us the world we want, does not destroy the world — it illuminates, reveals the truth of the world, and for a moment, the disciples see it, too. God doesn’t change in the transfiguration — the radiance is always there in Christ’s face. Transfiguration changes the disciples. For a moment, their senses are transfigured; they can see. They become witnesses. They see how the transformation of human love changes bodily states. It changes the face. It changes the eyes. There is a radiance in the look of love that draws out the beauty of God. In an instant, the disciples glimpse that human life may have meaning we don’t fully grasp, that the moments we take to be insignificant — something like a walk up a hill with a friend — may hold within it bottomless mysteries, may contain the word of life, the life that is the light of God, the extraordinary hidden in the ordinary, traces of heaven in the mundane.
Jesus must also know how entangled human life is with fear, how badly we would like to not be afraid, and how paralyzed we sometimes feel in the face of fear, the kind that makes it difficult to believe it is good for us to be here. Jesus must know all this when he tells the disciples not to be afraid. These are not words spoken from a distance, detached. They are words spoken up close, words that reach into us, words that are closer to us than we are to ourselves. There is patience in Jesus’s words; they will have to be said again. Even in the resurrection appearances, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, the disciples see Jesus and are overcome “with joy and fear.” Fear not destroyed but accompanied by joy. Fear being transformed. When Jesus says, “Do not be afraid,” it is not a command as much as it is a promise.
After they descend the mountain, Jesus goes to another lonesome mountainous place to pray — Jesus and the disciples go to Gethsemane, and something remarkable happens: It is no longer the disciples that are terrified; Jesus is afraid. Jesus is overcome by fear. He was “agitated,” the story tells us. “I am deeply grieved, even to death,” Jesus says. “Let this cup pass from me,” he prays. “yet not what I want but what you want.” It is almost like Jesus has stolen the disciples’ fear from them, absorbed their fear on the mountain. As if the rays of light in the Transfiguration caught their fear, then pulled it into Christ’s body — fear that will go with him to the cross, descend with him into death, then rise to resurrected life, redeemed. This is the promise inside Jesus’s words, “Do not be afraid.”
At Gethsemane, it is Jesus who wants to stay. “Remain here,” Jesus says. “Stay awake with me.” He repeats it three times. Stay awake. He needs the consolation of company, of friends who will not leave him alone. He wants them to remember.
And before Peter dies, it is the Transfiguration story he wants to tell again. This is the story he wants to pass on, he says in Second Peter, so when he is gone, others can recall it. “I intend to keep on reminding you of these things,” says Peter, “I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory, and I will make every effort so that after my death, you may be able to recall these things. We had been witnesses. We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain.” They glimpsed the radiance of God, but they will look again and not see, the significant will look insignificant again, the ordinary will lose its incandescence. We’ll need to tell the story, Peter says, then tell it again.
Stay away, stay awake, stay awake.
Do not be afraid, do not be afraid.
It is good for us to be here, and we cannot stay.
Listen to the one whose fully human face we cannot bear.
The one who steals our fear and transforms it,
Who reminds us that God’s radiance is always there,
hidden in human flesh and blood, hidden in our faces.
The other morning, Isaac and I ate breakfast and discussed the Transfiguration at a coffee shop, and while we were talking Isaac saw someone, and a friend I didn’t know but Isaac knew came over to our table. I had a hard time taking in the details of the conversation, because I kept thinking about radiance, and how joyful her face looked, and how we all look like that sometimes, an instant when human faces point to what is true — that somewhere there is the radiance of God, somewhere there is the word of life, the life that is light and the light of God that changes me and changes you. And when it shines, it blinds us and lifts us and we glimpse the truth of our lives — that the ground beneath us is not the foundation we thought it was, that we are dependent on God’s promise, held up by the grace of God alone — by the one who will be with us to the very end of the age, the one who speaks to you up close, who turns to you and says: Listen. Stay awake. Do not be afraid. It is good for us to be here, and we cannot stay. Look, your face is shining like the sun, radiant with God.
 My sermon’s debts include: Rowan Williams’ book, The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with the Icons, and his untitled sermon on the Transfiguration, given in 2003; Herbert McCabe’s book, God Matters; some sources in early Christian thought, including Irenaeus and Maximus the Confessor; Willie Jennings’ lectures on Christology at Duke Divinity School; and conversations with Isaac Villegas and Haley McCracken Schomburg.