This Sunday, we heard the gospel of Transfiguration. It is a beautiful story, rich in imagery and meaning: onto a high mountain—Mt. Tabor, most scholars believe—Jesus takes with him Peter, James, and John. And then…
There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
(Matthew 17:2-9 NIV)
In the Gospels, especially in Matthew, Jesus is very much the new Moses: the renewal of the covenantal promise, the way out of spiritual exile, the living connection to the Scripture. And even though Matthew casts John the Baptist in the role of Elijah—the Messiah’s hailer—Jesus in many ways is the new Elijah as well. He is the protector of the disadvantaged and the worker of miracles.
Think back to Matthew 16—not long before Transfiguration—when Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him the rumors going around: he was John the Baptist, he was Elijah, he was Jeremiah, or one of a host of other prophets. And then he asked, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter made his leap of faith then and recognized his revelation and answered, “You are the Christ.”
This, on Mt. Tabor, is a confirmation: Jesus is not any of the precursor prophets but the Son of God, one who comes from their line but who himself is the pinnacle of the salvation history. Here he is with Moses and with Elijah.
Now, all that—the Jesus-centered meaning—is the most important aspect of the story, and yet the protagonist here is Peter. Much like in salvation history, the important person is Jesus, but the protagonists are we. It is for us. His reaction—our reaction—is what matters. And when Peter sees the spectacular vision of shiny, transfigured Jesus, his reaction is not immediately what I would expect. I would have imagined him agape or falling down on his face, but instead, Peter, as my parish priest Fr. Fran eloquently described it, “wouldn’t shut his trap.” He prattles on about how good it is to be here and something about tents until the voice of God tells him he is in the midst of a theophany. Until God straight up tells him to listen. And then, once he listens, what he and the others hear is, “Fear not.”
And then it’s over.
I suppose, Peter’s reaction is understandable: what an awesome thing he encountered… He was processing. Maybe you or I would be rendered speechless, or maybe we would chatter nervously too, but who wouldn’t look stupid in the face of such overwhelming experience? I’ll put his problem less eloquently than Fr. Fran: Peter was too self-centered at that moment and yet not self-centered enough. Immersed whole and directly in the very Mystery itself, he was existing on too shallow a level to shut up and soak it in, and it took a rather firm push from God to put him in the proper disposition.
After it’s all over, Jesus tells his three disciples not to share the experience with others, not yet. Not until Easter. Not until the time is right. Not until the others are ready. If Peter’s initial reaction is any indication, being ready to listen is key for the perception of mystery.
We hear this story during Lent, before Easter, but then, we already know what happens next. For us, it is a preview and a lesson: Shut up and listen. When Mystery stares you in the face, forget about tents and busywork and maybe even ritual for a moment, quiet down the chatter in your mind and listen. Let God speak.
Lent is the time of introspection, but introspection is only good as a tool. It isn’t for rummaging around old wounds, it isn’t for pointless guilt. It isn’t to descend into the depths of ourselves and stay locked in there, alone, self-pitying, and self-centered. If we take this quiet time to look within, it is to open that inner space to the air of mystery and feel the freshness of the Spirit’s breath. We think about sin—our alienation from God and from the world and from our own nature—so we can know how to reach across the divide and be alien no more. We practice discipline not to increase suffering but so we can feel empathy for the suffering and assuredness in our commitment, so we can focus on the Voice of Truth. Introspection is only good if it serves its purpose: to help us be the kind of people who will enlarge ourselves to cover the world with love and have enough quiet room to hear God.
Peter had to look within his heart when Jesus asked him, “Who do you say that I am?” And he found there the voice of God. He had to retreat within himself on Mt. Tabor to close his mouth and open his ears. And from that place he would walk, on some level knowing the reality of what’s to come, all the way to the empty grave near Calvary.
Lent, too, is a journey to that place. A journey to glory and mystery of Easter and to baptism. Every year anew. And every year, we are reminded to look within and quiet down, and listen for the Voice of God.