So Jesus is talking with Moses and Elijah, and I want to know what they were talking about? Was it like clergy meetings where stories are told of difficult people or theology is parsed and argued over? Were they bemoaning the challenges of people who say they are “spiritual but not religious,” or wondering if church renewal and vitality could happen in time? Moses, how did you track visitors and get them to return to church a second time?
What is wrong with Peter, James and John that they do not remember or share anything said during the Transfiguration? They seem to remember all kinds of things of lesser importance. But here is Moses, the man who saw the burning bush, who faced down Pharaoh, bringing down plagues on one of the most powerful men on the planet, parts the Red Sea and builds a new community in the wilderness based on the 10 commandments. What would he say to Jesus? And here is Elijah, the great prophet who confronted the wicked King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, he asks for justice when Nabboth is killed and his vineyard stolen, he calls down fire to burn up his offering in a competition with the priests of Baal, and he does not die, but is carried up into heaven in a fiery chariot. This is the guy inspired “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, the guy for whom a seat is saved at the Seder Passover meal. What would they have told Jesus? We don’t know.
Since none of the Gospels tell us what was said, their conversation is not what is important. The symbolic power of these three together is important enough, seeing them together on an Instagram picture speaks for itself. Our rational, scientific mind wants to ask the question, is this true? Did it happen? Did Peter, James and John actually see Moses, Elijah and Jesus? We could understand Jesus having a vision, or hearing from Moses and Elijah, coming to Jesus like ghosts out of Dickens’s Christmas Carol or Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Spirits coming into the story connect us with another reality, the non-physical world, a spiritual realm that infuses our ordinary reality and ambitions. The spirits say “Scrooge, you are not just on this earth to make money, but to love and give.” So the presence of Moses and Elijah bring the realm of God near, to say that their very human and ordinary work is infused with divine providence.
Mark 8 begins with Jesus asking the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Some think he is Elijah returned, and it is Peter who blurts out, “You are the messiah.” So here in Mark 9 we are given a symbolic view of who Jesus is – he is the one who talks to Moses the liberator and law giver, Jesus is the one who walks in the way of Elijah the prophet, defender of widow and orphan, who did not die but was taken up into heaven, Jesus is the one who shines luminous, even his clothes glow when you see for a moment who he really is.
The point is that he stands in a tradition over the centuries of people who walked with God, who had the courage to do the will of God, who challenged injustice, and led people to hope again. He is one of the luminous. Transfiguration is the moment when we see someone or something as they really are, in there true and wonderful state. I imagine a moment when some young marcher in Selma looked over at Martin Luther King, Jr. and suddenly sensed, that is Moses right there. And for just a moment he glowed, and the young marcher heard the voice of God saying, “This is my beloved, listen to him.”
There is one parallel in scripture. When Moses comes down from Mount Sinai with the tablets containing the 10 Commandments (the second time) the skin of his face was shining with such radiance that the people were afraid of him and moved away, much the same as with Peter, James and John at the Transfiguration. Note that angels often show up, shining white like snow, so radiant that people are afraid, like the shepherds on watch or the guards at Jesus’ tomb. The first response to the bright light of God’s reality is fear, it is a reality beyond us, unknown, awesome, greater than we can comprehend. Far from a random vision, this event is laden with symbolic meaning, connecting Jesus to Moses and Elijah, to the law given on Mount Sinai. A voice from heaven says, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” Perhaps this is a symbolic message that Jesus is one with the law, and Moses and the Prophets, indeed the very Son who can speak with authority. So really, Transfiguration is not about Jesus changing in any way, it is about the disciples seeing Jesus for who he really is.
Transformation is changing from one thing to another, transfiguration is seeing reality, Jesus, as he really is. Spirituality is not just about changing and transformation, though we hope for these; it is also important to recognize the nature of spirituality is seeing clearly. If we do not see things as they clearly are, how can we ever know real change? Seeing reality in the true light, the illumination of the divine is a spiritual necessity.
Let’s think about the power of observation for a moment. What skills make a good police officer? Is it their knowledge of the law? Is it the ability to shoot a gun or use a club? Having an authoritative voice? The best police officers are keen observers. They pay attention to what people are wearing, how they stand, the details of peoples’ faces, anything happening out of the ordinary. Good police officers become detectives because of their observation skills, mediocre officers direct traffic.
Artists are not great merely because of their skill and technique. Leonardo da Vinci certainly had great talent, but he also spent hours observing reality before painting or sketching. In preparation for the famous Last Supper painting, he spent weeks looking at peoples’ faces in the market place to catch the right mood or facial structure. He often spent days watching birds in flight, sketching the movement of their wings, or observing horses run, trying to grasp the true state of their legs and muscles in motion. He did not just paint a nice picture, he observed into the true essence of something for many hours, and then he tried to show it to the world.
Good therapists are not the ones who know all the theories. They notice when a person crosses their arms every time they talk about their father, they see the look of shame as eyes break contact, the tears forced back, the repeated figures of speech. James Regan, former head of the Hudson River Psychiatric Center, could tell what major psychotropic drugs a person took by how they walked. He could scan a room and within seconds know who was depressed, traumatized or schizophrenic. He paid attention.
Something I note about Jesus in the Gospels is his keen observations. He sees things where others are unaware, not because of supernatural gift, but just being truly aware. Only Jesus notices the poor widow dropping her two pennies into the offering, giving all she had, and he brings it to the disciples’ attention that her gift is greater than all the others. Jesus notices Zacchaeus up in the tree in the crowd and asks him to come down. He feels the woman’s touch, who reached out to touch the hem of his garment in a great crowd hoping to be healed from her hemorrhage. Jesus watched human interaction and often seemed to see things upside-down from everyone else. The disciples tried to keep the noisy children away from Jesus for they were not important people, but Jesus said, “Let them come to me, for if you want to enter the Kingdom of God, you must be like a child.” (Maybe in part because children are great observers!) Jesus observed nature, paying attention to mustard seeds, lilies, fig trees, the way seeds grow in soil; he seemed to even know where to fish. Jesus paid attention. He watched, he observed, he saw. This is the essence of spiritual life; to see, to experience illumination, seeing in the light of God.
If we want to know more of the reality of God, what we must do is pay attention and watch everything around us with the eyes of love. We watch, pay attention, and then in a moment we see the world illuminated. Our vision sees below the surface of things, a light shines in the darkness, with the very presence of God.