Jesus. Himself. Alone.

The Transfiguration by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, oil painting on wood, 1516-1520.

Last Sunday in Epiphany
March 6, 2011 reading:
Matthew 17:1-9

It’s a long, hard climb up Mount Tabor, where tradition says Jesus was transfigured. The way is steep, and the road narrow. You have to leave your tour bus at the bottom. Transfer to a taxi. The Tabor taxi drivers love to drive fast, and fly around the sharp bends in the road. When you get to the top, there’s a little church. Sometimes the peak is cloaked in mist, and you can’t see much at all.

One day … Matthew says it was six days after Jesus challenged his disciples to become cross-bearers. The same week Peter blurted out that Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus invited Peter, James, and John to climb up to the sort of place where he found it easier to get close to Abba.

When Saint Columba landed on Iona, he declared it a “thin place.” Jesus went to a place where the veil between heaven and earth was stretched thin. There was a breakthrough. Jesus was transfigured. The glory – light of God’s presence – shone in his face. Bleached his clothes. Enveloped the thin place like a mist, a cloud caught on a mountain crag.

In that moment it was clear Jesus was one with the Creator of the universe, the Father of Israel, the Great “I Am.” Clear for all to see.

Moses and Elijah were there. Somehow, Peter and the others recognized them. Men who met God on mountains. One, in sound and fury. The other, in stillness and silence.

This is a strange story. The stuff of dreams. Or nightmares. It reaches back to Jesus’ baptism. When God said, “This is my Son, the beloved; with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)

With this addition: “Listen to him!”

The transfiguration is like a hinge in the gospel. After this, it’s all downhill for Jesus and his friends. Down, southward, to Jerusalem. Toward another hill. Toward the cross. But wait! Peter wants to build a church on the hilltop. Three shrines, at least. Peter doesn’t get it. It’s not about the light, the awe, the rush of emotion that comes when we realize we’re in God’s presence. It’s not about the moment of transfiguration.

Matthew underlines this when he tells us, “when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.” Jesus. Himself. Alone. Deliberate repetition.

After the sound and light show … When the signs and wonders fade into history … After the burst of energy and excitement …

After the answered prayer, the minor miracle, the unexpected gift. And on those days when prayers seem to rise no higher than the kitchen ceiling. When inspiration is just a fond memory.

What’s left? What do we have? When we go home on Sunday, after a service that gripped us, lifted us up, drove the shadows away. What do we have on Monday morning? The week after Easter? A month after Christmas?

Jesus. Himself. Alone.

What’s left, when there’s no more water in the font? When the baby’s forehead is dry?

Jesus. Himself. Alone.

You and I are disciples, walking a lifelong road. Sometimes we walk in brilliant light, sometimes in shadow. Momentary blessings, explosions of insight, glimpses of God’s face feed us on our way. It’s what we do after those experiences that really matter.

The German philosopher Nietzsche wrote, “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is … that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”

Long obedience in the same direction. Following Jesus, himself, alone.

The glory of God shines in this world when people live in God’s way. The true image of God is revealed in faithful people. And that is how the transfiguring power of God’s Son is set loose in this world. A Voice calls us today, “Listen to him!”


About Laurence DeWolfe

Rev. Dr. Laurence DeWolfe is minister at Glenview, Toronto.