When the Light Shines Through: A Sermon on the Transfiguration
by Teri Daily
Today is the last Sunday in the Season of Epiphany, and each year on this Sunday we read the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus. "Transfiguration” is an uncommon word in casual conversation. We are more likely to say that someone has been transformed than transfigured. The technical definition for one word isn’t very different from the other, and yet we don’t use them interchangeably. We tend to use the word “transformation” when a change in substance is involved, when something evolves into different being. A caterpillar becomes a butterfly, a man becomes a father, heated sand becomes glass.
The word “transfiguration” carries a different connotation. Maybe influenced by our religious use of the word, transfiguration usually describes a change in appearance that unveils that which is most true. The nature of the object in question doesn’t change; that nature is just suddenly made clear to us. We see it for what it has really been all along. If any true evolution is involved, it takes place in our understanding, not in the thing itself. It is ultimately we witnesses who walk away changed.
As a pediatric intern, I spent time on the Pediatric Surgery team—making sure pediatric surgery patients received adequate nutrition, correct dosages of medications, and care that took into account age-appropriate social and cognitive development. During that time I rounded with a pediatric surgeon who was gruff and matter-of-fact. He seemed to view his patients strictly as medical cases; they were for him puzzles to be solved, teaching cases for new interns, the next thing on his to-do list. Empathy didn’t seem to be his greatest gift. But one particular experience changed the way I saw him.
A prenatal ultrasound revealed that an unborn baby suffered from a vascular malformation that was growing quickly and causing heart failure. The decision was made to deliver the baby by C-section two months early and then proceed with a surgical repair. It was a risky procedure. Just a few minutes into the surgery those of us in the operating room knew that the baby wasn’t going to survive. After the baby died, we wrapped her up in blankets and started down the hallway to her family; it would be their first time to hold her.
On the way, the surgeon ducked into an empty operating room, motioning for me to follow. Exhausted, he slid to the floor, tears streaming down his face as he held the baby. I was speechless. To this day I don’t know if the tears were related to his own sense of failure, the stress of the day, the loss of human life, or the suffering he knew the family would inevitably endure. Maybe it was a combination of all of these. I don't know. But, at that moment, shining through his usually cold demeanor was an empathy I had never before seen in him. It was a transfiguration of sorts, adding a new dimension to this man I thought I knew.
By the next morning he was outwardly back to his typical self, but although I never saw such a display of empathy again from this surgeon, the image of those tears streaming down his cheeks was etched in my mind; it was a memory that colored every subsequent encounter I had with him.
Such transfiguration moments usually come to us as gifts—we may not experience them again, but we also can’t undo them. They are etched in our minds; they color and add depth to everything that comes after them. This was certainly the case with the Transfiguration of Jesus.
Up until the eighth chapter of Mark, the disciples stumble around in the dark when it comes to Jesus. The demons know that Jesus is the Son of God, but the disciples remain in the dark. When Jesus calms the stormy sea, the disciples say to one another: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Jesus feeds five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish, and then four thousand with seven loaves of bread and a few small fish. But when the disciples find themselves in a boat with only one loaf of bread, they start worrying that they don’t have enough.
By the eighth chapter of Mark, though, the gaps in the disciples’ understanding are beginning to shrink. Peter finally blurts out that Jesus is the Messiah. And immediately after that, Jesus tells the disciples what awaits them in Jerusalem; he tells them about his suffering and his death. It’s in this context that Mark recounts the Transfiguration.
Jesus takes his inner circle of disciples and goes up a high mountain. In the midst of all the fear, dread, and uncertainty that come with knowing what awaits them in Jerusalem, Peter, James, and John experience a face-to-face encounter with the glory of Christ. This same man who has told them about his future suffering and death is transfigured before their very eyes—his clothes become dazzling white, more white than all the Clorox in the world could even begin to match. Who can blame Peter for not knowing what to say and so for impulsively suggesting they start a building campaign? Add in the voice of God booming from above, and it’s a terrifying experience.
As the vision fades, the disciples look up to find Jesus just as he was before. But that experience of his glory and power will remain etched in their minds as they travel the rest of the way to Jerusalem. What a gift for the disciples! In the days ahead they will witness the arrest, suffering, and death of Jesus. And with the image of Jesus’ glory shining in and through his ordinary human features still fresh in their minds, they will start to understand that Jesus’ glory and his suffering, his power and his passion, are not opposites; instead, the power of God is the power of a love so strong that Jesus is willing to lay down his life for friends. In fact, it’s because divine power and divine love are always one and the same that God’s power sometimes looks to the world like weakness. But, truth be told, such love is anything but weakness; it's the only thing with the power to transform the whole world. The juxtaposition of Jesus’ Transfiguration with the foretelling of his death reminds us that the passion of Christ will not take place despite God’s glory, but because of it. The Jesus of Good Friday and the Jesus of the Transfiguration are one and the same Jesus.
I like to think that the vision of Jesus on the mountaintop that day changed not only the disciples’ understanding of Jesus, but the way they understood themselves as well. Knowing that God makes Godself known in flesh and blood, the disciples now know that their own ordinary, human lives can at moments also radiate a sacredness and an intimacy with God that is almost beyond belief. Yes, the disciples will go on to have their own trials and sufferings. But knowing that Jesus’ suffering and his glory are not opposites but one and the same, they know, too, that they may actually come closest to God’s glory in the very midst of the world’s brokenness and suffering, when they act out of a deep love for others that looks to all the world like weakness. In a way, for the disciples, the Transfiguration of Jesus becomes their own transfiguration as well. It becomes our transfiguration, too. Frederick Buechner puts it this way:
It is as strange a scene as there is in the Gospels. Even without the voice from the cloud to explain it, they had no doubt what they were witnessing. It was Jesus of Nazareth all right, the man they’d tramped many a dusty mile with, whose mother and brothers they knew, the one they’d seen as hungry, tired, and footsore as the rest of them. But it was also the Messiah, the Christ, in his glory. It was the holiness of the man shining through his humanness, his face so afire with it they were almost blinded.
Even with us something like that happens once in a while. The face of a man walking with his child in the park, of a woman baking bread, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing. This week we enter the season of Lent. It's a time to come face to face with our brokenness—to name with honesty our failures, our hurts, our losses, our sufferings, the crosses we bear, and the places we are called to go that are sure to demand sacrifice. But we do this work with the Transfiguration of Jesus etched in our minds; it’s a vision that gives us both hope and courage. For we know that our very human, ordinary and messy lives can, at certain moments, radiate the deepest truth of who we are, of the glory from which we come. We know that even in suffering and brokenness, we can still experience the power of God’s love—and maybe experience it there as much as anywhere. Like it was for the disciples, what a gift this knowledge is to us! May the image of Jesus on that mountain color our experiences and deepen our understanding as we, too, turn our faces toward Jerusalem.
 Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words (New York: HarperCollins, 2004) 393.