The Reverend Kathleen Killian
February 14, 2021
Transfiguration Sunday B 2021
2 Kings: 2:1-12
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
On this last Sunday after the Epiphany, we find ourselves at an apex, atop a mountain to be precise, having followed a star to the birth of Jesus, then Jesus to his baptism and the beginning of his public ministry. Through his teaching, healings, encounters, and signs, we’ve been catching glimpses of who he is—and suddenly, the veil is lifted and our eyes are opened to the glory of God in Jesus transfigured.
Of the Transfiguration and God’s glorious revelation, Fr. Karl Rahner SJ writes: Union with God, which Jesus otherwise holds hidden in the ultimate depths of his soul, now fills up all the chambers of his soul, it embraces his body, drawing it, too, into the blessedness of God's light and God's unity. His face was like the sun, and his clothes were as radiant as light—or as St. Mark writes: his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.
But on earth is exactly where Jesus is—atop a mountain to be precise—where his body, his earth, is embraced by the Holy One in union and light. He is not simply changed into a better or new and improved Jesus. He is, as the word transfiguration means, completely transformed in form and appearance into a more beautiful and elevated state. The profound reality of the Incarnation—of the Word made flesh and enfleshment of God—is made apparent in Jesus’ body, face, and clothes.
While mystical indeed, the Transfiguration is not divorced from the material—and this is so vital to remember—lest we fall into the easy trap of dualism that separates the sacred and the secular, the ordinary and extraordinary, worldly flesh and heavenly spirit. Jesus walks up the mountain to its summit, and to another reality, embracing it as Peter, James, and John witness and experience. The path up the mountain is in essence the path of the human heart to the heart of God—and God’s unified incarnational vision—and so it is our path too.
Peter, James, and John, who have been tirelessly following Jesus, must have been heavy-hearted as their feet trudged up the mountain after him. Though not included in our lectionary, they are carrying the heavy cross of the dire and disturbing prophecies that Jesus has recently revealed to them about his coming passion, death, and resurrection.
No sooner do they reach the top than the glory of God is manifest in Jesus—light spills out of his every cell as he is transfigured. As abruptly Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophet talking with the blazing shimmering Jesus, God’s Messiah. Peter impulsively suggests they all camp out on the mountain for a while; he’ll build three tents.
Who wouldn’t want to seize this extraordinary moment? But the scene atop the mountain, though glorious, was also one of confusion and terror, as depicted in our scriptures. In the earliest icons of the Transfiguration, Peter, John, and James have been hurled to the ground—to the bottom of the icon—toppled by divine revelation. Their bodies lie strewn about as they shield their bewildered faces from searing brilliance, and hold their heads as if suffering a tremendous shock.
Suddenly, they hear a voice from the cloud enshrouding them: This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him! Exclamation point! Then, as suddenly, there is only Jesus. Moses and Elijah are nowhere in sight, and Jesus is no longer ablaze in light. It’s eerily silent: what just happened?
We see something similar in our Old Testament passage. The prophet Elijah, who is soon to be called home by the Lord, has been called from Gilgal to Bethel, Jericho, and finally to the Jordan river, his devoted disciple Elisha faithfully following behind. Elisha has asked to inherit a double portion of Elijah’s spirit—to be his successor—and at the Jordan experiences a theophany of grand proportions. A chariot of fire, and horses of fire, separate the two of them, and his beloved Elijah ascends in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha witnesses God’s fiery glory, but then it is over. It is eerily silent. Elisha is bereft, and tears his clothes in two. But then he picks up Elijah’s mantle in his hands as God’s revelation is no less a threshold of identity at which he now stands. For three days fifty men search for Elijah, but he is nowhere to be found.
Back up on the mountain, Jesus starts heading down. The still-dazed disciples gather their wits and wobbly legs, shaking off their shock, hurrying after their teacher’s long strides. I wonder what Jesus was feeling, for he had crossed a momentous threshold. After a few minutes of walking alone with his thoughts and prayers, Jesus turns to them and says: Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has risen from the dead.
Peter, James, and John didn’t fully understand what Jesus meant and questioned among themselves. But they did know that nothing would ever be the same again—God’s revelation of glory in Jesus was no less a threshold of identity for them. Yet it also seemed as if nothing had changed. At the bottom of the mountain, they were met by a restless crowd hungering for healing, which not one of Jesus’ disciples was able to provide. His divinity newly revealed, the still very human Jesus snaps: Faithless generation, how much longer must I put up with you? Bring the possessed boy to me. Jesus rebukes the unclean spirits and everyone is awestruck—just like on top of the mountain.
So too the Zen master tells his students: before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; after enlightenment chop wood and carry water.
In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul affirms that God has chosen us and our imperfect time-bound bodies to show forth God’s light. He writes: it is the God who said: ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shone in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Paul himself has been transfigured by the light of Christ; from Saul to Paul, he declares himself a slave for Jesus’s sake. He is willing and endures great hardships because he sees that God’s Christ is making all things new, and that Jesus embodied this light and new life for all.
From glory to glory, we ourselves can become more beautiful and true children of light. St. Paul’s stance is firm: God has not abandoned us or the creation to the “god of this age” and the opposing dark forces at work in the world. But like Paul, Peter, John, and James, and so many before us, we must follow the light of Jesus into the shadowy corners of our lives and hearts, that the heavy dross of unconscious and unrepentant sin is made lighter and transformed.
On this Transfiguration Sunday, atop the mountain, we find ourselves at an apex, a turning point, and a threshold. But what goes up must come down, and so we do, descending from the mountain of glorious light into the sparsity and silence of Ash Wednesday and season of Lent. For forty days, we will follow Jesus through his passion to the cross, and into the cold stone dark of the tomb. And yet even in the black of death, there is light—God’s light of new life can never be extinguished. Though we will never explicitly know what happened in the deep of the tomb and the Father’s heart, I can imagine another kind of transfiguration, of God’s radiant brilliant light ablaze—breath of the Holy One—awakening Jesus: Let there be light! Rise up my beloved Son! In witnessing the transfiguration of Jesus, tangible and visceral hope had been given to Peter, James, and John as they journeyed with him to the cross. On the brink of our Lenten journey into the wilderness and wiles of the human heart, so too are we strengthened for our journey with Jesus and struggles of faith, life, and discipleship.
As on the day of his baptism in the river Jordan, and on the day of his transfiguration atop the mountain, so God declares this day: This is my Son, my Chosen—my beloved, my shining one, my beautiful one—listen to him! Let us then take to heart what Jesus said: Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has risen from the dead. During this Lenten season, let us hold the mystery close and what must gestate in the womb of our hearts: Who is Jesus? And, who am I in Christ?
This past year of pandemic, social and political upheaval, racism and separatism has endangered the vibrant, diverse, and vulnerable body of our humanity. Let us hold fast to the Infinite within our finitude, lest dualism and division take deeper root. The unity, light, and blessedness of the incarnate God remains our guiding hope.
So be it; and may we be transfigured with Christ in the fire of God’s divine love. Amen.