Transfiguration | Strange Things on the Mountain | Matthew 17:1-9
Strange things happen on mountains. Moses meeting with God to chisel out a new way of living comes to mind.
Matthew’s story of the mountaintop experience raises questions that have few answers. Why a mountaintop? Why just Peter, James and John—what’s so special about them? What is transfiguration anyway?
Where did Moses and Elijah come from when they appeared up there on the mountain, and where had they been in the meantime?
Is the cloud a cloud or an actual manifestation of God, and do we really know the difference? What about the voice—is this God speaking? Is God talking about God as someone else, someone who is also God? Can we make sense of God in one place or form making a reference to God in another place or form—God talking about God? Are the aspects of God, whom we call Father and Son and Spirit, always manifested separately, or do we simply perceive God differently from beings who are not God? Was all of this real or some kind of hallucination?
Why are they all afraid?
Where did everybody go afterward—Elijah, Moses, the cloud? Why did Jesus touch each of the men? Was there something in his touch that worked differently than his words?
Why was it all a secret?
For whatever reason, physical reaction or mental shock, the men fall to the ground in fear. Jesus tells them, “Get up and do not be afraid.” We have this statement plain and simple from Matthew’s story. Is there anything we can make of it? Could Jesus be demonstrating what God would have us do? Could it be that God does not wish or need us to fall on the ground in fear, but that God wants us standing, unafraid, even in the very presence of God? Is it human to react with such poise?
We can speculate on entities made of energy, on parallel worlds separated only by a breath from our own. We can wonder whether it is our reality that is limited or our ability to perceive it. All of these things are fascinating. All of them are simply speculation.
Whatever happened on the mountain, most of us have never been there. We are like the other disciples, wondering about the amazing experiences that these special ones shared, wondering why we were not invited to join them.
We live in the lower places.
We might feel ordinary, and maybe we are. We might think the mountain climbers to be special, and maybe they are. It might be that Peter, James and John were special, but only in their need. Maybe the other folk, left down in the valley, did not need to see Moses or hear voices.
It may have bothered John, all those years. Much later, long after Matthew had put out his gospel, John wrote another one. John’s perspective was different, his themes and emphasis different. It was John, who had been up on the mountain that day, who gave us another saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Faith is easy on the mountaintop, but there is little use for it. Down in the lower places, the valleys, the flat lands, faith is not so easy, but it is much more needful.