Fear and Trembling: A Reflection on the Feast of the Transfiguration

Today is the great and holy feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord. It is one of my very favorite celebrations of the Christian year. Last year I wrote about how and why the Transfiguration is at the centre of Eastern Christian spirituality. And when the story came up again in the lectionary at the end of the season of Epiphany, I wrote about how same divine light that shone through Christ on the mountain shines through us too as we are ever-more filled with the Holy Spirit and act as agents and ambassadors of God’s love and grace in the world.

These are beautiful and important themes, but having done this theological heavy lifting already, today, I want to take a different path up the mountain.

Today, I want to talk about fear.

The three disciples who witness the Transfiguration are said to be terrified. While this detail is famously captured in the iconographic tradition almost as comic relief, James, Peter, and John have every reason to be terrified. First, in the sacred geography of the Ancient Near East, mountains were numinous places, thin places where the heavenly realms were regularly expected to converge in the human, where one had to expect the unexpected. And as we saw over and over again in the series on Knowing God this past Winter, encounters with God always stretch us beyond our limits. And they always leave us changed.

Moreover if we take the chronology of Luke’s Gospel at face value, the disciples must have been overwhelmed even before their trek up the mountain: in this chapter alone, Jesus has sent the disciples out on their own healing and teaching mission, he has fed the five thousand, Peter has rightly proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah, and Jesus has not only predicted his own crucifixion, but has also told the disciples that anyone who follows him must carry their own cross. That’s a lot to take in. A lot of stretching, a lot of excitement, a lot of confusion.

And now, here they are on this holy ground, their teacher shining brighter than the sun, Moses and Elijah at his side, and the voice of God thundering from the cloud as it had at Sinai.

No wonder the disciples are afraid.

On the Mount of the Transfiguration, James, Peter, and John are given a glimpse of Truth, unveiled and unvarnished. Jesus is radiant with the Divine Light that is his birthright. He stands rightfully in the place of honour between the human embodiments of the Law and the Prophets. And all this is sealed by the voice of God: “This is my Son, my Chosen: Listen to him.” They have been invited to this moment; but this invitation means that God sees them. And to be seen by God means to be seen through by God. There are no more masks, no more half-truths and self-justifications. They stand naked before God, confronted by the Revelation of God’s truth. This Revelation is a perception that cannot go unperceived, a calling that cannot be unheard. It is a divine Pandora’s Box that will change their lives for ever. They are being called out and called up to a new life. And there is little more frightening to us than that.

While most of us will never experience anything like what these disciples did on that mountain, we are nonetheless called to be confronted with these same truths and called to this same calling. Peter, reflecting on having witnessed the Transfiguration, says as much: “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1.18f).

I don’t need to tell you that we are living in difficult and fractious times. Indeed the past few years, and this year especially, have acted like something of a funhouse mirror of the Transfiguration — not the Revelation of God’s Kingdom, but the Revelation of how far our world is from it. The veil has pulled back on much in our own society: How fragile and illusory our “mighty” economy is. How access to healthcare is more stratified than we’d care to admit. How our compassion for those fleeing all kinds of devastation seems to find its limit the moment it might cost us something. How there are leaders who publicly pronounce that the wealth of the rich is more important than the lives of the poor — and assume they won’t suffer electoral consequences as a result. How policing is not what many of us were led to believe it was.

Like the disciples, we are afraid of what we are seeing. The news leaves us feeling naked, vulnerable, and anxious for the future. These are different kinds of fear than what the disciples experienced, to be sure. But fear is fear. And in response to all this, many seem to be drawn in by nostalgia of so-called simpler times, times when we were freer to live in our illusions.

But, like those disciples on the mountain, God still calls us to face our fear. Like them, we are being called out from the past and called up into the future, toward God’s light, God’s grace, love, compassion, and justice. And now, as then, his message is the same: “This is my Son, my Chosen: Listen to him.”

May the Good, Holy, Divine Light of the Transfiguration be always for us a lamp shining in the dark. And may we always choose to open our eyes to see by this gracious Light. Amen.

4 thoughts on “Fear and Trembling: A Reflection on the Feast of the Transfiguration

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