Up on the Mountain

Meditation for Transfiguration Sunday (Luke. 9: 27 ff.)


The reading for the Sunday of Transfiguration (August 6) is taken from the Gospel according to Luke 9:27-36. Parallel passages can be seen in Matt. 17:1-9 and Mark 9:2-10. Peter who was one among the three living witnesses to the event has also written about it in 2Pet. 1:16-21.  There are few differences in detail between the various records of the event. Luke does not use the term transfiguration in his account. This is because the word was so popular among the pagans those days. To him ‘the appearance of his (Jesus’) countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white’.  Luke did not want his readers (mostly non-Jews) to consider this event just as what happened in their midst.  Again for Luke Moses and Elijah appeared in ‘glory’.  This would suggest that the departed ones (particularly the saints) share the glory of Christ. 


The reading in Orthodox lectionary disregards the normal division of the passage. In the Bible the passage begins with verse 28 and ends with 36. But in Orthodox lectionary it begins with verse 27. The Church wants us to read the transfiguration narrative with the backdrop of what Jesus said in v.27 and earlier. This verse talks about those who shall still be alive until the coming of the Kingdom.  We could even go further back to start from verse 18.  Here Jesus asks his disciples ‘who do the people think he was’. The confession follows and then Jesus’ words about the right of people to enter in to the kingdom of God.  Our participation in the Kingdom of God is on the basis of our faith affirmation that Jesus is the Son of God.  What happened at the mountain was a pre-taste of the Kingdom of God and both dead (Moses and Elijah) and the living were there to witness it. 


The discussion that took place there was about the suffering and death of Jesus. For Luke Jesus’ death was a ‘departure’ or an Exodus. That was the new Exodus.  Just as Moses led the first Exodus, Jesus leads the second. Just as Israel followed Jesus we the new Israel are to follow Jesus.  If the first Exodus was just for a limited number of people, the second one was for the whole creation.  If the first one ended up in political freedom, the second one ends up in freedom of the whole person.


Moses and Elijah who, though of old and dead, led the people of Israel were also present at the discussion.  This discussion was carried out in a worship context and all the elements of it were present. The Glory of God, the presence of the departed and the living, the voice from heaven and above all the presence of the Holy Trinity were there.  We, the Orthodox Christians confess that the departed ones are present in worship and our prayers on behalf of them are primarily a recognition of their participation in it.  However there are those Christians who insist, on the basis of what is seen in Ps. 115:17 (they fail to see what is in verse 18), that the departed ones are in silence and the saints can not be part of the worshipping community.  In the event of transfiguration we have a clear example for their active participation in worship with Christ along with the living.  While Peter and his friends were fast asleep, it was Moses who departed from this world some fourteen centuries back and Elijah who departed some eight centuries back, actively participated in the discussion with Jesus.  It should also be noted that Peter was able to recognize them as Moses and Elijah.


What shall be the kind of situation in Kingdom of heaven? We shall have an answer to this if we closely follow what was the discussion about at the transfiguration mountain.  The matter of discussion was the salvation that was to happen to the whole creation through the suffering and death of Jesus. We believe that our worship is in fact a pre-taste of the Kingdom of God. That is why at the beginning of the Holy Qurbana the celebrant would say, “Let our hearts, minds and thoughts be with Jesus Christ who is seated at the right hand side of God the Father”. When we pre-taste the Kingdom of God, our whole talk should be how the salvation that Jesus Christ brought to the world can be actualized in and through us.  If that should ever happen in and through us, our prayers and thoughts should be directed towards the salvation of others taking Jesus as our model and guide. Rather, most of the time we are concerned of our own salvation and will be praying for that only. Whenever we come together ‘in the precious name of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (this is the phrase many people, even Orthodox people use these days while they pray, though we are not authorized to pray except in the name of the Holy Trinity), we talk about each one’s welfare and that itself many a time at the cost of others suffering. So we never see the kingdom of God while alive. If we do not see it while alive how can we see it in the life after?  What we follow now is the model of Peter and not of Jesus (of course Peter was changed after the Pentecost, but even after we received the H. Spirit in baptism and renewed it in Pentecost that we celebrate every year, we are not changed (feast of transfiguration comes after the feast of Pentecost in our Church calendar). 


The cloud in the story represents the continued presence of the Glory of God among humans, yet not fully revealed. While Moses was on the mountain, cloud covered it (Ex. 19:9,16). It was a protective presence too (Ex. 13:21,22). The second coming of Christ, according to Matthew, shall be in cloud (24:30, 64: also see Mk. 13:26).  The voice from the cloud is the word of God to the people who would listen (There is a slight difference in the words of the voice from heaven between the Gospels. But the essence is the same).  It is a call to every one to accept Jesus as the Son of God. Any word from God in substance shall be a call to accept His son as the model and guide. The answer to our prayer for our welfare and salvation will always be a similar word from God that requires us to accept Jesus as our guide. His model is that he worked out salvation through suffering and self sacrifice. But we always seek the easy way of self glorification. 


Peter’s escapist tendency took over him.  He was so happy to be in a blissful atmosphere. Down in the valley there were problems, Pharisees trying to put Jesus in to death, people who gave no time to them to rest, but went where ever they were to get their needs met, no time to eat, even the relatives were not soft on him. Peter was fed up with life in the midst of all those, just like we who get frustrated so fast confronting challenges and situations of crises. Peter wanted Jesus to forget his mission and stay up on the mountain. Peter would be more than happy to serve Jesus and be there eternally.  We also many times look for comfortable hide outs.  Some times even our spirituality is based on this escapist tendency.  Jesus wanted to face the challenges. He even called Peter ‘Satan’ when he suggested that Jesus should not have passion and death (Matt. 16:23).  We want to avoid suffering even if our attempt may cause suffering to others. But Jesus has already said, unless a grain of wheat falls in to the earth and dies, it remains alone, but it dies, it bears much fruit’ (John 12:24).  These days we bring up our children in a conditioned and comfortable environment without ever letting them have a taste of the toil of the parents.  But when they grow up they would stumble at situations of crises. One of the reasons of growing number of suicide cases in Kerala can be attributed to this tendency. Our worship, which is an experience of staying up there with Jesus on the mountain, should not be considered as a safe haven for us to escape from realities in life, rather a recharging power house that equips us to face life in this world with all its difficulties.  Jesus said, "In the world you have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). With Him we need to work hard to overcome the world, not to escape from it.