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Fire on the Mountain
The Feast of the Transfiguration
And after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves: and he was transfigured before them. And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them. And there appeared unto them Elias with Moses: and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter answered and said to Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias. For he wist not what to say; for they were sore afraid. And there was a cloud that overshadowed them: and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him. And suddenly, when they had looked round about, they saw no man any more, save Jesus only with themselves. And as they came down from the mountain, he charged them that they should tell no man what things they had seen, till the Son of man were risen from the dead. ~Mark 9:2-10
Can you keep a secret? At least one of the disciples could. Throughout his gospel St. Mark pictures our Lord as the “clandestine Christ.” At every turn, He is charging his disciples to keep tight-lipped about what they had seen and heard. Scholars have referred to this as Mark’s “messianic secret.”
This is much in keeping with the strange ways of our God. Indeed, the prophet Isaiah makes the striking claim, “Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself…” And this is a sense with which we are all familiar. At times it feels like God is distant, aloof, hidden. There are times when we plead for some tangible expression of His nearness, some visible manifestation of His comforting presence, and yet, such evidences of Divine comfort seem hidden to us.
But even God’s hiddenness is a mercy, a gift. God’s nature is such that His presence fills all in all. There is no place where He is not found. But He is present there as the Invisible God. If He were to pull back the curtains so that we could view Him in all of His resplendent glory, two things would happen. First, we would be able to see nothing else. Second, we would die. So it is no small thing for Him to approach us only as the Unseen God.
But even so, God gives us faint glimpses of Himself along the way. We hear His lordly voice in the Words of Sacred Scripture. There He comforts and chastens us; encourages and exhorts us; wounds and heals us. We see Christ’s own body and blood hidden under the lowly signs of bread and wine. We recognize His image in the faces of those we meet. And on occasion we are even able to trace the steps of Providence as we reflect upon the tender watchcare of God over our lives. We say, “it was a miracle!” or, “it had to be the Hand of God.” And just these emblems of the Lord’s own nearness are what the hymn writer called a “foretaste of glory divine.” It is such an “appetizer of eternity” with which the last Sunday of Epiphany is concerned.
We come now, with Peter, James, and John, to the Mount of Transfiguration. We turn aside, like Moses once did, to see the strange sight. In our midst we behold a man who is more than a Man—this man is God. His clothes have become radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. His face has taken on a supernatural aura that outshines the noonday sun. Here is One whose very being is ablaze with the fiery Light of God, though his mortal frame is not consumed. If we were wise we would put off the shoes from our feet, for the ground upon which we now stand is holy.
Standing, then, in stunned silence we are made witnesses to the mystery of Christ. Mystery is our greatest teacher because it reminds us that some things are too high for us, so wonderful that we can scarcely take them in. As the heavens are high above the earth, so are God’s ways above our ways and God’s thoughts above our thoughts. It is in beholding the mystery of Christ that we learn the limits of our understanding, the poverty of our intellect, the sobering truth of our ignorance. And it is here that we learn the true meaning of humility.
The mystery of Christ is not a puzzle we can assemble; it is not a code we can crack. We will never be able to unscrew the inscrutable. Mystery calls us to faith. Though the ways of God lie beyond the reach of reason, they may be grasped by belief. Mystery bids us, like Job, to put our hands over our mouths. To bow our faces toward the ground. To worship the God whose ways are past finding out.
Herein lies the grand paradox: though the mystery of Christ is such that we can never trace its breadth, or scale its heights, or plumb its depths; it is just here that we come to know that which may be known of God. Even in God’s hiddenness, His glory is revealed. By gazing into the mystery of Christ as He is transfigured in our midst, we are made privy to the great secret, the secret of the majesty of Christ.
So he that hath eyes to see, let him see. The words of the inspired penmen, those secretaries of the Holy Ghost, are always fit to purpose. The background is never really background—it is foreground. The details that litter the sacred page are never incidental, but fundamental.
Places are never just places, but are locations of revelation suffused with meaning.
People are never just people. Every figure is a literal figure, calling our attention to Christ as the “True Figure”; embodying every virtue, exhibiting every grace, excluded from every vice.
Periods are never just periods, but every time and day hearkens back to an earlier time or points forward to another day.
Contrary to the popular adage, It is not the devil but divinity that is in the details.
Consider the moment. Mark rarely gives us time stamps, so we mark this one as significant. Scripture records that this event takes place “after six days.” While I am not great at math, I can count past six. That makes this the seventh day. The Transfiguration of Jesus takes place, as it were, on a sabbath day, a holy day. The day in which God comes to meet with His people and they pay homage to Him in worship. Thus, the Transfiguration is a picture of the ultimate sabbath, the day in which the Son of God will bring rest and the full reconciliation between God and man.
There is also an allusion here to the day in which God met with Moses atop Sinai lofty crags: “Then Moses went up on the mountain and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day He called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.” The mount of Transfiguration is the Greater Sinai, the place where the glory of God is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. And just as Moses’ face shone when he descended from His audience with the Almighty, Jesus showed forth the glory of His own essential nature as He was clothed in garments of light and His face burned with the brightness of heaven’s glory.
Consider also the mountain. “After six days, Jesus...led them up a high mountain.” Now we do not know whether this was Mount Tabor or Mount Hermon, but we do know that in the Bible mountains are special places in which men meet their God. Mountains are trysting places, thin places between heaven and earth. It is on the mountain where we learn with Abraham that God provides a substitute for us by providing His own sacrifice—ultimately the sacrifice of His own Son; it is on the mountain where we learn with Moses that God is both Lawgiver and Lawkeeper in the person of Jesus Christ; it is on the mountain where we learn with Elijah that the voice of God is rarely heard in the whirlwind or the earthquake or the crackling embers of a well-kindled fire, but in the faint whisper of a still small voice; it it is on the mountain where our Lord faced down temptation and battled the enemy of our souls; it is on the mountain that the Father would place the blood of the Lamb over the doorpost of the world, banning the Angel of Death from our souls. Truly, as the Holy Ghost has said, “In the mountain of the Lord it shall be seen.”
Consider also the men. Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John. Those we call the Lord’s “inner circle.” For it is those who undertake to follow Jesus wherever He goes who are blessed to see His majesty. It is not for the casual Christian, the Chreasters (those who only get religious on Christmas and Easter) who are drawn into the middle of the great mystery of God’s presence. It is for those who ascend the hill of the Lord with clean hands and pure hearts.
But there are two other men mentioned here. At the moment of Christ’s transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appeared with Him. Moses, the representative of the Law; and Elijah, the representative of the prophets. Why these two? Because in Jesus all of the Scriptures are fulfilled. The Law is but the schoolmaster to bring us into the University of Christ; and to Him give all the prophets witness. The presence of these men on the mountain confirms both the reliability and authority of the Words of Scripture, and the place of Jesus as the hinge upon which they all turn.
We move now from the various visible elements of the text to things audible. Lean in and listen to the starling sound. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
A conversation is taking place between Christ and the two witnesses of the Old Testament. Though Mark doesn’t record it, Matthew and Luke tell us that they speak with Jesus concerning His exodus. That is, they speak of His impending death and resurrection. Moses may have said “I led God’s people out of Egypt but you will lead them out of the grave”; Elijah may have added “I left riding the chariot of fire, throwing my mantle overboard to Elisha, along with a double-portion of my spirit. But you will rise from this earth in a cloud of glory, passing your mantle to every son and daughter, and pouring out your Spirit upon all flesh.”
But we hear another voice butting in. Peter, the Apostle with a foot-shaped mouth, always has to offer his own two cents. “This is glorious! It is good for us to be here! Let’s make three tabernacles and stay!” Peter, again, is behaving like Satan, trying to tempt Jesus into taking a shortcut to glory. He forgets that the feast of tabernacles comes after the feast of passover. Christ must suffer to enter into his glory.
Lest we be too hard on St. Peter, this is also our problem. We want glory without suffering, a crown without a cross. We want the testimony without having to take the test. Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.
Almost as if answering Peter’s suggestion, a cloud overshadowed them and a voice came booming from overhead: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him.” The voice of God comes again, just as it did our Lord’s baptism. But unlike at the baptism where God spoke to Jesus, the Father now speaks directly to the disciples. Christ said that He must suffer. Listen to Him! Christ said that He must die. Listen to Him!
Having ascended the mountain to behold the mystery, we caught a glimpse of the majesty of Christ. But we have not fully concluded our business on the mountain until we have understood the ministry of Christ. The Transfiguration is a foreshadowing of Calvary. The first father who was called to sacrifice his well-beloved son was spared that awful task; God provided the substitute. But now God’s well-beloved Son will not be spared because He is the substitute. Moses and Elijah will be replaced by two thieves. Those glowing garments will be stripped and gambled away. His radiant face will be beaten and bruised. There will be no voice from heaven. He will feel forsaken by His God. But the Transfiguration teaches us that things are not always what they appear to be on the outside. True glory comes in the shape of a cross.
Then suddenly, the cloud was gone. Moses was gone. Elijah was gone. And they were left alone with Jesus. But isn’t that enough? If we learn nothing else from the Transfiguration let us learn that the glory we long for is ultimately found in Him.
The bride eyes not her garment,
But her dear Bridegroom's face;
I will not gaze at glory,
But on my King of Grace—
Not at the crown He giveth,
But on His pierced hand:
The Lamb is all the glory
Of Immanuel's land.
In the fullness of time, God shined upon this tired earth. The Father of Lights, sent forth His Beloved Son as the Light of the World. And the darkness could not overcome it.
In Him was life, and that life was the light of men. When we languished under the shadow of deep darkness, Light dawned over a sleepy Palestinian hamlet. A star rose over Bethlehem, and wise men made a famous journey to find the hand that hung the fiery orb in the heavens. That early light was the first flicker of Easter. Epiphany now seems a dim sight when compared to the luminous day when the Sun of Righteousness arose with healing in His wings.
As one might expect, such Light illumines everything it touches. Though it is true that, like John, we are not that Light, we bear witness to that Light by being torches lit by Christ’s Himself. Once the Daystar has arisen in our hearts, we become burning and shining lamps; lesser lights to rule the night until the final day dawns.
Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners? She is the Church, that shining city on a hill. It is given to us to be the beacon of life in a world veiled in the darkness of death. And as the prophet has said, “they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars forever and ever.”
The Transfiguration is the brightest streetlamp along Epiphany road. It is here that the knowledge of the sufferings of Christ and the glory that should follow is most clearly illuminated. To those of us on the victory side of the resurrection, Mark’s secret is finally opened and handed on.
It is not for us to keep it, it is ours to share.
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