Three disciples come face-to-face with the mind-boggling nature of God. How do they react? And is there a lesson for us in their experience? That’s the question the church poses in the Feast of the Transfiguration—which the Armenian Church will observe on Sunday, July 19.
There is a mystery at the heart of Christianity. In our Divine Liturgy, we worship Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnate Word of the Lord, through whom the entire universe was created. As humble human beings, we might naturally ask, Where do we fit into all this? Can such a cosmic being really care about creatures as small as us?
A clue to such questions is quietly offered in the Gospel story of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13).
Prior to the Transfiguration, Jesus had been very secretive about his true mission and identity, even to his twelve disciples. At one point, Jesus asked them who they thought he was. After a round of wrong answers from the others, Peter spoke up and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus blessed Peter for this insight, and then disclosed the prophecy of his own death and resurrection.
Now, the disciples had always understood that Jesus was a unique and important figure—he was, after all, a riveting teacher, an inspiring leader, a powerful miracle-worker. But here, for the first time, they were being let in on the secret of just how special Jesus was.
With that disclosure, the groundwork was now prepared for the visual spectacle of the Transfiguration—which is the very next episode in Matthew’s gospel.
Alone and Apart
The story begins: “After six days, Jesus took Peter and the brothers James and John, and brought them up into a high mountain apart.”
Right from the start, we are given a subtle reminder of the mystery of Creation, in the seemingly unnecessary comment about “six days.” The mountaintop, too, is a place of mystery. The difficult climb, thin air and cold climate all make the high altitudes inhospitable to human beings: this is a world quite literally “apart” from normal human activities and concerns, where the heroes of the Bible met in solitude with God Himself.
In this strange, unearthly environment, Jesus suddenly appears physically changed and glorified—transfigured—to the three disciples: “his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light.” Even more amazingly, Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet emerge from the mists of Biblical history, and break into conversation with Jesus.
This fantastic scene unfolds as if the disciples were not there; the presence of Peter, James and John is either forgotten or ignored by the participants in the mystical proceedings. For their own part, the disciples must feel as though they have stumbled upon something they were not supposed to see. It is Peter who finally finds voice to speak, but his words are little more than a plea to be useful: “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you would like, let us build three tabernacles [shrines or shelters] here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
It is a kind and pious sentiment; but it seems woefully inadequate to the grand scale of the event. Imagine having three of the greatest figures of all time materialize right before your eyes, and all you can think to say in response is, “Can I get you a seat?” In such circumstances, it might be better simply to keep silent.
Jesus, Moses, and Elijah seem to take no notice of Peter’s remark; in fact, before Peter has a chance to finish, he is interrupted by the most astonishing apparition yet: “a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice out of the cloud said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.” The voice is so terrifying that the disciples—brave, tough men in normal situations—fall to the ground and hide their faces in fright.
Lifting Their Eyes
At this point, one feels compelled to ask: Just what is going on here?
Reading the story fills us with questions: What does Jesus’s transfiguration signify? Why are Moses and Elijah present—what do they represent? Are they supposed to be ghosts? Conjured spirits? Actual historical figures plucked from their own times? What are they talking about with Jesus? And what is the meaning of that cloud?
Unfortunately, none of these questions is answered for us in the story. We may speculate about them, or interpret them in various ways, but in the most profound sense, we are in the dark about the Transfiguration.
Yet this is a familiar situation for us. God’s ways are mysterious, and His infinite nature defies human understanding. The church’s theological teaching is our attempt to come to an understanding of God and the universe He created. But even this is just a peek into something we cannot fully comprehend.
The story of the Transfiguration illustrates a parallel situation, where the disciples get a rare glimpse of Christ’s full glory, and his central place in God’s scheme. By comparison to such things, the hopes and fears of human existence seem terribly small and meaningless. Perhaps this is the source of the disciples’ fright—just as the fear of human nothingness is the source of much confusion and misery in our own world.
But the key to the story is yet to come.
As they lie on the ground, their bodies trembling, their eyes shut, the disciples feel a gentle touch, and hear a reassuring voice: “Arise,” it says, “and be not afraid.” They look up, emerging from their self-imposed darkness—and what do they behold? The glorious Son of God? The culmination of Biblical history? The divine creator of the universe?
In the truest sense, all of these things are still standing before them.
But what the disciples see is much simpler, and in its own way much more wonderful: “When they lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only.”
One imagines that Peter, James and John must have greeted the calm, familiar sight of their master with a sigh of relief. They—and we—still have many questions about the Transfiguration and the mysterious universe it embodies—questions which may never be answered to our complete satisfaction.
But the gospel writer seems to be telling us that what we really need to look at, first and foremost, is Jesus Christ. Because he contains all of these mysteries within himself, Christ is our human point of contact with the gigantic questions about God, Creation, and man’s place in it. He is our familiar doorway onto the unimaginable.
Out of Darkness
We are like the disciples in the story of the Transfiguration. Christ has called us to walk with him. Why did he choose us? Where is he taking us? We cannot say for certain. All we know is that he is leading us upward. Our ascending path will be strenuous at times, and it will lead us to a place beyond our everyday lives. Some of the things we see during our climb may be too enormous, too confusing, too frightening for our human minds to grasp. At the same time, our human gestures of piety and reverence, however sincere they may be, are inadequate to the momentous thing we seek to honor—much as Peter’s remarks about building shrines seems ridiculous as a response to what he saw.
But Christ did not come among us just to show us how insignificant we are.
He came to show us that the infinite God Who created the universe, who transcends time and space, is not too big to concern Himself with human things.
With his hand on our shoulder, and his voice in our ear saying “Be not afraid,” Christ has come to lead us out of the darkness.
By Christopher H. Zakian
Above: “Christ’s Transfiguration,” from an Armenian illuminated gospel executed in 1475 by a scribe identified as Aristakes; from the collection of the Walters Art Museum (Manuscript W.540, fol. 9v).