There, in their presence, he was transfigured.
Jesus had gone up the mountain with this trusty group of three disciples, to be alone. This was neither the first nor last time Jesus would turn away from the heavy work of his Father’s mission to have some time alone in prayer. But it was the first time he’d done so with Peter, James and John in toe.
So this was the first time his close friends had witnessed what happened to Jesus in prayer. We don’t need to think that the transfiguration of Jesus was a once-off; it may very well have occurred whenever he went off to be alone with his Father.
But it was the moment when others would see Jesus in this state. The transfiguration as we know it was something others were brought to, to see—a gift for them to witness. There, in their presence (not his own), Jesus was transfigured.
What did they see? They saw Jesus. Before them was the same man they had come to know and follow. Yet we might say Jesus was, for the three disciples, now more fully, more revealingly himself. The transfigured Jesus was he who, six days earlier (Matthew tells us), was telling them of the road to suffering and death he would need to take. Jesus had to rebuke Peter for trying to stop him. Strikingly, six days later, Peter was still in fear, still in denial on the mountain—‘let’s build three tents,’ he says. In other words, let’s ‘freeze’ the moment and not go on.
But at the transfiguration, Jesus would be revealed as their Teacher (with a capital ‘T’). Moses and Elijah are there, the teachers of the law and prophets, along with the cloud of divine knowledge, veiling the presence of God and his words of authority, and Jesus’ body covered in light. This is a teaching moment. What does Jesus teach Peter, James and John? ‘Stand up, and do not be afraid to take the path ahead.’
Just before Jesus would reach the end of this road on Calvary, another transfiguration would come to be witnessed by Peter, James and John. This time, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus would be transfigured with a face of deep dread, his body covered in sweat like drops of blood. And again, the disciples would withdraw in fear from what was revealed to them on Jesus’ face.
Indeed, Jesus spoke truly as he came down from the mountain after his first transfiguration—it would take the resurrection of the Son of God to allow the disciples to see and recognise who he was for them. From light on the hilltop, through passion on the cross, to risen hope: this path, and his face, was given to the world, and to us.
Each transfiguration of Jesus is a gift. We are brought to see the face of Jesus fully revealed as both glorious light and sacrificial love. And we are invited to take the path with him that leads to our transfiguration, and the fullness of our lives, whatever of our circumstances. Do not be afraid; take the journey; be transfigured in Christ.
Banner image: Fra Angelico, Transfiguration, 1440–42, fresco, Basilica di San Marco, Florence.