From Mary to Peter to Paul . . . to me
I recently prayed with the story of the Transfiguration. It really struck me. I saw a thread between Mary’s experience at the Annunciation; Peter, James, and John’s experience at the Transfiguration; Paul’s experience; and our regular experience as lay disciples. Let’s unpack it.
We’ll take the account as given in Luke Chapter 9. Jesus has just sent out the 12 on their first mission. They return full of joy at the way the Holy Spirit worked through them. Crowds gather. Jesus feeds the crowd with bread from heaven. Later, in solitude with the disciples, he asks who they think he is. Peter expresses the insight he has received from the Father that Jesus is the Christ. Jesus takes this moment to announce his passion for the first time, the true mission of the Messiah, and to reveal to the disciples what it means to follow him. What it will cost.
Eight days later, he takes with him Peter, James and John. He goes up the mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance, the shape, the form, the eidos of his face changed. It became something different. His clothing became radiant like light, dazzling like lightening. Refulgent. Words fail here. Dazzling light and brightness. A physical transformation has occurred. A breaking through, in the physical, of a spiritual depth and vision.
Suddenly, we see another breaking through of the realm of spirit into the natural world. Two men can be seen. Moses and Elijah. Men who are alive in spirit, in the kingdom of heaven, but not on earth. They appear by Jesus’ side. It’s a conversation in the spirit. They speak of the exodus Jesus will accomplish in Jerusalem (Lk. 9:31). We don’t know exactly what Luke means by this word, exodus. But surely it has something to do with the exodus that Moses accomplished for the people of Israel. It is likely the fulfillment of that sign. The drawing out of the people from a dominion of slavery toward a new covenant relationship with God, sealed by the blood of a lamb, whose flesh the people ate, whose blood marked their homes. Jesus was speaking with Moses and Elijah of an exodus Jesus would accomplish, not in Egypt, but in Jerusalem; not drawing people out from the dominion of Pharoah, but perhaps from some other dominion.
As Jesus prayed, Peter, James and John had been overcome by sleep. Now they awaken and they see his glory. They see Moses and Elijah. They see with spiritual sight. Peter speaks. He wants to welcome Moses and Elijah like typical guests. Build them a tent. Have them stay for a spell. He doesn’t know what he is saying. As he was speaking, a cloud came. The same cloud that guided the Israelites through the desert by day. This is not a literary figure, not a kind of metaphor. This is the self-same cloud that guided the Israelites in the desert. When the Holy Spirit appears on earth, other lights fall dim. The Spirit appears to us as a cloud, a darkening of human lights, an appearance of a light we have difficulty perceiving. This same Spirit drove Jesus into the desert in Mark 1:12. It descended upon Mary and overshadowed Mary in Luke 1:35. This cloud descends and overshadows (same Greek verb as Lk 1:35) Peter, James and John.
As Peter, James and John enter the cloud, they fear. They are in the presence of God. They feel it. Then a voice comes from the cloud. The voice of the Father. Both the cloud and the voice proceed from the Father. The voice reveals the true identity of Jesus. It unveils him. “This is my son, the chosen, listen to him.” In the cloud the Father reveals the deep identity of Jesus. This is a revelation. An apocalypse. The Father moves the disciples to deeper faith in Jesus. He reveals who Jesus is. This would have affirmed the testimony of faith Peter had just given. This Jesus is the Christ. This voice and this vision would have sealed their willingness to take up the conditions of discipleship Jesus had just stated. Because they now see in the Spirit and hear in the Spirit who Jesus really is. The son of the Father, a man greater than Moses and Elijah. One who would bring about a new exodus from Jerusalem. The fulfillment of what the original exodus was as sign.
After the voice falls silent, Jesus now stands alone. Moses and Elijah are no longer visible. Peter, James and John fall silent. They do not speak in those days to anyone of what they had seen. Elsewhere Jesus tells them not to speak of it. Bids them wait to speak of it until after his resurrection, until after the exodus in Jerusalem, after the lamb has been offered and a new covenant is sealed.
At this stage in Lectio, we ask: what is the heart of this passage? I think it is this:
“While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. They fell silent and they spoke to no one in those days of anything they had seen. (Lk 9:34-36).
Now we ask: is there any other passage in Scripture that sheds light on this passage?
I think of something Paul wrote: “And we who gaze, with unveiled face, on the glory of the Lord, we are being transformed from glory to glory in his image by the Lord who is Spirit.” (1 Cor 3:18).
Paul is not speaking here to people who were on Mt. Tabor. Paul himself was not present on Mt. Tabor, during the transfiguration. He is describing a path that is open to regular disciples in Corinth. He says they can gaze with unveiled face upon the glory of the Lord. The elements of this path are the same. The gaze is on the face of Christ where the glory of God rests. This happens in the Spirit. A change comes over those who gaze on Jesus. They move from glory to glory. Glory falls on them, takes root in them, affects them, moves them, becomes in them an agent of change. This encounter with glory changes them; they are marked by this glory. It bronzes their heart as the sun bronzes the face. It leaves a trace upon the soul. It shapes the soul in the image of what is contemplated.
We can see, then, that what happened to Mary in the Annunciation in Luke 1 – she was overshadowed by the Spirit, taken up into the cloud –happens in Luke 9 to Peter, James and John. But what happened to Peter, James and John also happened to Paul. And what happened to Paul, Paul now extends as a reality of faith to his listeners, to his spiritual children. He is saying that we too can gaze with unveiled face upon Jesus when we gaze on him in the fullness of faith and love. We too can enter into the cloud, where our human lights fall and the light of the spirit stands forth. There, what is darkness and cloud to our senses is light to the nous; light to the intellect. There we are im-pressed, there we have in-pressed within us the light of the glory of God that shines on the face of Jesus Christ. We too can be transformed from one encounter with glory to the next. Transformed so that we grow more in likeness with Jesus. A child of the Father, born of his love.
Father, in the Spirit, you reveal to me the glory of your son. You draw me to gaze on him with unveiled face. You form me in his image. Lord Jesus, you are the Christ, the Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner.