Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’ Matthew 17:1-9
The Transfiguration story appears in the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9), with basically the same story included in each. Jesus take Peter, James, and John up on the mountain (traditionally Mount Tabor) where they have an experience of Jesus being transfigured before them. While they are witnessing Jesus’ transfiguration, with Moses and Elijah speaking with Jesus, Peter suggests that they construct three tents or tabernacles (skene), prompting a cloud to envelope them. (In Matthew’s account, it is described as a cloud of light). While in this cloud, they hear a voice announcing Jesus as the Beloved Son. After the cloud departs, Jesus is standing there alone, and he cautions the three disciples not to speak of this experience.
It is a fascinating story, and I have long been captivated by it. While we studied it, of course, in our New Testament classes, I was very intrigued that it is a feast day that we actually observe twice each year in the liturgical calendar. The readings for the Transfiguration are always used on the Sunday preceding Ash Wednesday and the observance of Lent, while the Feast of the Transfiguration itself falls on August 6. I adopted it as my personal feast day, if you will, since my birthday is August 2. So, each year, we have the opportunity to observe this feast twice.
While sitting in my meditations these past few weeks, I kept being drawn to explore the story more–and the significance I think it holds us as we step into this new year. Many questions have risen up within my own heart as I look back on this past year, with all its frustration, confusion, anger, and grief. What is being manifested in our lives today? What are we being called to behold? Where is the Light around us? What obscures it?
Just today, while sitting a bit and reading Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer, I notice this paragraph in Douglas Steere’s introduction:
There is a line in William Blake that says that “we are put on earth for a little space that we may learn to bear the beams of love,” and it would be hard to find a more suitable way either to introduce or sum up Thomas Merton’s account of monastic prayer. For in this line we are given a clue both to the greatness of the human condition: that it is irradiated by love, but also a firm reminder of how much remains to be done to prepare a man (sic) to bear the “beams of love.” Here in this last firm reminder are hints both of man’s longing for exposure to these “beams of love” and yet his fear of what may be involved to come within its transforming power. (Merton, Contemplative Prayer, 7).
Herein lies a glimpse at what I am seeing in this story: namely, that it is not just a story about Jesus but is, rather, a description of the potential of our own spiritual practice as we are invited into a greater awareness of the indwelling and transforming presence of Christ in our very hearts–to behold and bear the “beams of love.” The story is not about Jesus; rather, it is about us, the trajectory our hearts are called to embark on as we realize the nature of our deepest, more authentic selves–an identity known only with, through, and in Christ.
Each of the moments of the “story” are stages, if you will, or moments of potential within our own spiritual practice–the transforming power of a practice of prayer that seeks to cultivate such an understanding of our true selves (as Merton would describe it), and thus our call to rest in an awareness of God’s loving embrace.
This movement or trajectory of transformation is what I want to explore as I begin this year, and I am noticing many conversation partners who are meeting me on the way–some already being very surprising. The following entries in this so-called “Transfiguration Journal” will include pieces from St. Symeon the New Theologian, a 10th century Byzantine Christian monk and mystic, as well as teachers in the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. I have found the Dzogchen teachings to be fascinatingly resonant with the deeper teachings of the cultivation of this authentic self, this realization of our true nature.
Of course, I am paying attention to the other teachers and guides who will no doubt come to share in my study and prayer, and I pray that this focused study will help frame my upcoming sabbatical time.
So, I pause for now, with a prayer for Light, for an awareness of the Light that overshadowed Peter, James, and John, and that seeks to illuminate us all. The following words are from Hymn 1 in Symeon the New Theologian’s Hymns of Divine Love, written some ten centuries ago. He is trying to describe an encounter he had with the Divine Presence, with this reality of Light. I keep returning to his words:
Here, I am speechless and my intellect knows
what is being fulfilled but cannot explain it;
it contemplates, it desires to express it
but does not find any words;
what it seeks is invisible, completely destitute of form,
without any composition, simple, in infinite greatness.
In fact, it knows no beginning, never discovers any end
and knows not any kind of center;
how then will it express what it knows?
In my opinion, it is the whole recapitulated that one sees
not indeed by essence, but by participation.
In reality, you light a fire with fire,
it is the whole fire that you take
and yet the fire remains undivided without having lost anything
even though the transmitted fire be separated from the first
and distributed to many lamps, for it is a material fire.
But this one is spiritual, indivisible,
absolutely impossible to separate and divide.
Not a fire that is distributed and which produces many others,
but it remains indivisible and is in me at the same time.
Hymns of Divine Love, 11-12