In this week’s gospel reading, we read Mark’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus (9:2-9). Peter, James, and John journey with Jesus to the top of a “high mountain” (traditionally, Mt. Tabor), where Jesus’ appearance is “transfigured” before them: his clothes become “dazzling white,” Moses and Elijah appear to be talking with him, a cloud “overshadows” them, and a voice speaks from the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” It is similar to the story of Jesus’ baptism, in which we heard the same voice from heaven and the Spirit appeared in the form of a dove rather than dazzling light and a cloud, and it similarly punctuates a turning point in the gospel of Mark. After this, Jesus begins to foretell his own death and resurrection (9:31), and the shadow of the cross will loom even larger over Jesus’ journey.
The transfiguration of Jesus is an event unlike any other in the gospels. For one, it is a secret vision or epiphany that is only given to a chosen few who travel up the mountain with Jesus. They are strictly commanded not to talk to anyone about what they have seen until after the resurrection (which reminds us that we are reading this story after Easter). Why was it important for only a chosen few to see this transfiguration? What does it add to the story of our salvation that we should be in on their secret? Interestingly, John keeps the secret in his Gospel. According to the other Gospel writers (Evangelists), John was there to see it; and yet, in the Gospel of John, we find no transfiguration story, at least not like this one at all.
I believe the transfiguration story is extremely important, despite the fact that John doesn’t give it to us directly (you could say he gives it in another form), not only as an additional fact or real event from the life of Jesus, but as a symbol of the whole reason why Jesus came in the first place–of what the gospel means for us and our salvation. It reminds us that Jesus came with more than an earthly, life-saving purpose. He came to do more than triage for a mass of diseased and sin-sick souls. He also came to take a few disciples with him to the top of the earthly mountain, to ascend a spiritual ladder to the heights of God and bring our humanity with him (sounds a little strange or cultish, but hey: I don’t make this stuff up). In other words, he came to earth and became human in order to ascend with at least part of us back to the Father, and in so doing, enlighten and sanctify our earthly human existence to make it capable of union with and participation in the divine nature of God (2 Peter 1:3-4).
I think the reason John might not consider it necessary to tell the story quite this way is because it does not speak of a true change or transformation that took place in Jesus. John knows Jesus was always the dazzling, enlightened being the disciples only saw him to be in this case for a moment. The transfiguration is only the story of a change in his appearance before the gaze of his disciples: an epiphany, a revelation, more of a change that took place in them rather than a real change in who Christ always was and is. Which is not to say that it isn’t the story of something that actually took place, that actually happened to those disciples and in them by the Spirit.
The transfiguration story is important because it reveals to us, in hindsight, that Christ is and has always been our sanctifier. He is the one who leads us up the mountain, toward our upward call to be holy as God is holy. He was with Moses atop mount Sinai giving the law for Israel’s sanctification in truth. He was with Elijah, the man of God, in the time between the times. It is only in him and with him that we encounter the heights of divine light and revelation in this life, and yet he is the same one who is there in the darkest and loneliest moments we know of. The fullness of his holiness and glory is revealed most “brightly” in all its “dazzling” array on the cross.
Our holiness tradition has tended to focus too exclusively on the role of the Holy Spirit in our sanctification. We have preached “Spirit-baptism” and recited prayers to receive the Holy Spirit, or entire sanctification, as a secondary gift, somehow different from receiving Christ as Lord and Savior. To be sure, the Spirit is rightly called our sanctifier. But, only because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus, who makes it possible for us to live in him who has become our sanctification, who, in the glory of his own resurrected, but nonetheless human person, infuses this earthly life with all divine love and the possibility of heavenly bliss. As the presence of the whole Trinity in the transfiguration story symbolizes, there is no way to receive this Christ without the Holy Spirit, or to receive sanctification by the Spirit as anything other than a deeper and fuller awareness of the salvation we have received in Jesus–by participation in his broken body and even “the fellowship of his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10).