Some things cannot be explained, only experienced. For example, how do you know the difference between the love of the moment, and a love that will last a lifetime? Or how can you describe color to someone who is born blind? Or why do war veterans stay so quiet about their battle experiences? These are not the kind of questions that can be reduced to formulas, creeds, or slogans. As with most of the really important truths in life, they resist easy explanations. They can only be known by living through them. And those who know these truths rarely shout about them in public, for they are best laid gently against the ear in a whisper, or better yet, a knowing nod from across the room.
The great truths about life are wrapped in mystery. To speak of them we must use the indirect language of poetry rather than the direct language of prose. As light too bright to view straight on, these great truths can only be seen from an angle.
And it is with this angled vision that we view the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus, as reported in the Gospel of Luke today. It is a singularly remarkable story. And we do it no justice to reduce its mystery to a set of easy precepts that help us live our ordinary days. This is a great, unusual moment in the life of Jesus. It is utterly shrouded in mystery, and majesty. So profound was this experience that decades later both Peter and John would write about it as the day “we saw his glory” (John 1:14) and “were eyewitnesses to his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16).
What happened on that mountaintop that day? We cannot know for sure. Even the eyewitnesses were not sure what they had seen, nor what it meant. But the longer the disciples lived, the more they seemed to understand. And these seemed to be some of the insights they learned.
First, those who have heard God’s voice can more easily endure God’s silences.
This was the second time in the Gospel record when the disciples heard the Father’s voice affirming the Son. At Jesus’ baptism, the voice from heaven called him “beloved,” and gushed with the Father’s pleasure. And now at the mount of Transfiguration, immediately after Jesus announced his destiny of suffering on the cross, the voice again confirms the path of Jesus’ direction. How crucial these two heavenly confirmations must have been for Jesus, and for his followers!
But on another hilltop, outside Jerusalem, while hanging on a cruel cross, the heavens would fall silent. On this day there would be no shining light, no appearances of Moses or Elijah. And yet Jesus could endure such a Day of Silence, because he had heard the voice earlier. No amount of suffering or humiliation could erase that memory, or separate him from the confidence that voice gave him in his chosen path of redemptive suffering.
You and I will live through some dark moments of our own during a lifetime. Moments when we will fling out our prayers to God in desperation, only to be greeted by heaven’s silence. How do we maintain faith in such a dark quiet? By recalling those times when the sunlight of God shone in our hearts, when God’s word was planted in our memories. Suffering does not invalidate those times of intimacy with God. It is at such times that those memories are all we have. But fear not, those stored experiences of God’s presence are enough. We are saved by holy memory.
But second, we are also saved by holy hope.
It is not incidental that it was Moses and Elijah that stood with Jesus on that day of transfiguration. Moses epitomized the Law, and Elijah epitomized the prophets. And both the Law and the Prophets looked forward to the day when God would come to set things right, to redeem His people. In Jesus all of those centuries of expectation and hope found their fulfillment. For all of those years, God’s people lived and died by the hope that God would be faithful to fulfill His promises, even though they did not exactly know how God would do it.
And it is not that different today for God’s people. Even though we know the story of Jesus, and even though we have seen the heart of God laid bare in his suffering love on the cross, we still have more questions than answers when it comes to life’s mysteries.
And here is the greatest mystery of all, “what happens to us when we die?” Once again, the great truths cannot be explained, only experienced. And the Transfiguration of Jesus does not provide that explanation. But it does give us a glimpse of a transforming brightness on the other side of the darkness, like a light at the end of long tunnel.
On those occasions when Jesus took Peter, James and John aside for special instruction, the foreboding sense of death always hung in the air. First it was at the bedside of Jarius’ daughter, whose death Jesus reversed with life-giving power. On the mount of transfiguration, which occurred just after Jesus had been talking to the disciples about his own death, Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus about his upcoming “exodus’—his death—in Jerusalem. And finally, in Jerusalem, the night before he died on the cross, Jesus took these same three disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane to help him pray and prepare for death.
Why these three only? We do not know. And why were they always falling asleep instead of watching and praying like he asked them to? We do not know that either. But we do know that in those few brief moments of special time with Jesus, God chose to pull back the curtain of mystery just enough to let them know that death does not have the final word. At the other end of the tunnel of mystery, on the other side of death, is a transforming presence and power. But at the end itself, there is God. And that, for now, is enough for any of us to know.