Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Be the Light” Matthew 17:1-9
Followers of Jesus have been debating the meaning of his Transfiguration for almost 2,000 years.
Within our Protestant Reformed tradition, the Transfiguration is celebrated on this last Sunday before the season of Lent. Transfiguration closes out the season that begins with those post-Christmas Sundays: Epiphany and Baptism of the Lord. The Magi followed that brilliant star to find the newborn king. God proclaimed from the heavens at Jesus’s baptism that he is God’s beloved Son. It’s entirely fitting, as we enter the Lenten valley, that there should be a mountaintop moment, the Transfiguration, to remind us that the heavenly light shines in Jesus, the Beloved Son whom we should be listening to.
Our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions won’t be celebrating Christ’s Transfiguration until August sixth. That’s when they observe the feast day, deep in the heart of those long weeks of Ordinary Time that stretch from Pentecost to Christ the King Sunday. Once upon a time, no one agreed when the Transfiguration should be observed. In the tenth century, it was celebrated in France and England on July 27th, in Saxony on March 17th, and at Halberstadt on September 3rd. Finally, in 1456 Pope Callixtus III established the date of the Transfiguration for the universal church on August 6th, in memory of the victory won over the invading Turks at Belgrade.
Even modern-day Bible scholars disagree about the Transfiguration. An influential block of twentieth century experts, including Rudolf Bultmann, argued that when Matthew, Mark, and Luke were writing their gospels, they got the date wrong. These scholars say that the Transfiguration is actually a resurrection experience. It belongs at the end of the synoptic gospels when they imagined it more likely that the risen Lord would appear to his inner circle of disciples and grant them a vision of his glorified resurrection body that would soon be permanently communing with Moses and Elijah in that far brighter light on that far better shore.
Just reading the Transfiguration story confronts us with the fact that, at the time, even the disciples didn’t know what to make of their experience. That most trusted of disciples Peter was definitely clueless. Confounded by all that holiness, Peter wanted to pitch some tents. We’re still not sure whether the dwellings were meant to be an act of hospitality, a plan to preserve the moment, or just an uncomfortable effort to do and say something to relieve the mystery and stress of an experience that he really couldn’t wrap his head around.
If the disciples and the Bible scholars and the major branches of world Christianity can’t agree on the date, significance, and timing of the Transfiguration, then what hope is there for us? Help us, Jesus!
David Lose is a Lutheran pastor and former president of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. When David teaches about the Transfiguration, he likes to call attention to what followed the dazzling, numinous, incomprehensible moment of enlightenment on the mountaintop when God spoke from the heavens, telling Peter to pipe down and listen up to the Beloved Son. Suddenly, the light was gone, the disciples had fallen on their faces in fear, and Jesus was still there, looking like he usually does. The Lord went to the disciples. He touched them. He comforted them. Then, he set their feet on the path that would take them back down the mountain and into the valley where the world waited, in desperate need of love and light.
In Jesus, God chose to enter the world with love and light. Instead of dwelling on the mountain in glorious mystery with holy conversation partners like Moses and Elijah, Jesus chose the disciples. Jesus chose to be in the midst of trouble with followers who often felt confused, who didn’t always know the right thing to say or do. Jesus would be with them to help and to heal, whether he looked glorified or not. The Transfiguration offers a promise of accompaniment and presence. That promise would later be confirmed at the close of Matthew’s gospel when the risen Lord stood with his disciples atop another Galilean mountain. As Jesus prepared to ascend to his Father—and his friends Moses and Elijah—Jesus again reminded his frightened followers that he would always be with them, even to the end of the age.
Years later, as Peter neared the end of his life, he wrote to the early church and described his memory of the Transfiguration as “a lamp shining in a dismal place.” Through years of witness and ministry that would take Peter from the Galilee to the heart of the empire in Rome, his experience of the Lord’s Transfiguration would stand as a holy reminder of the presence and power of Jesus. Peter would trust that amid the fear and darkness of his world, Jesus would always reach out to frightened disciples with light and life, sustaining the church until the Kingdom would come, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts (2 Peter 1:17).
John, too, when he wrote his gospel, would hold fast to that memory of light. In the glorious opening verses of his gospel, John would remember the Transfiguration, writing, “The Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We observed his glory, the glory as of the ‘one and only Son’ of the Father.” John trusted in the promise of the Transfiguration: that the light continues to shine in the world’s darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it (John 1).
Perhaps the question that we should be asking on Transfiguration Sunday isn’t, “What does all that numinous holiness mean?” Perhaps the better question that we should be asking ourselves is, “How am I called to live in response to the transfigured Lord who has chosen to be with me in all my fear and limitation in the midst of this dark world?”
The late Archbishop Joseph Raya of the ancient Greek Melkite Church taught that the Transfiguration is a call for disciples to be the light amid the world’s darkness. Raya said, “Transfiguration is not simply an event out of the two-thousand-year-old past, or a future yet to come. It is rather a reality of the present, a way of life available to those who seek and accept Christ’s nearness. We can live lives transfigured by the nearness of Jesus, and we can go forth to transfigure our world.”
Joseph Raya would spend a lifetime being the light of Christ and getting into “good trouble.” Born to a Christian family in Lebanon in 1916, he was ordained in 1941 in the midst of the chaos of the second World War. He taught in Cairo until 1948 when he was expelled from Egypt for advocating for the rights of women. Raya believed women should have the right to receive an education and generally defended the dignity of women. Raya advised an Arab woman to slap the face of any man who made inappropriate sexual advances toward her, no matter the man’s rank. When the deserved slap was delivered to King Farouk, Father Raya was given twenty-four hours to leave the country.
The following year, Raya emigrated to the United States. In 1952, he was appointed pastor of the Melkite Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where he befriended Martin Luther King, Jr. The two marched together across Alabama, including the March on Selma. This made him a target for the KKK. On one occasion, Raya was dragged from his home in the church’s rectory and badly beaten by three clansmen, who taunted him with the name “Nigger Lover.” Raya responded, “Yes, I am, and I love you too.” His witness of love toward all people caused one of the men who beat him to call and beg his forgiveness 35 years later.
In 1968, Raya returned to the Middle East when he was appointed the Melkite Archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth, and all Galilee. There he continued to be light, working for reconciliation between Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Druze. He brought along his gifts for non-violent direct action, organizing marches and sit-ins, and engaging in a highly publicized hunger strike to advocate for the return of Palestinian refugees to their Galilee homes.
President Carter awarded Joseph Raya the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980. Raya was later nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. When the Archbishop died in 2005 at the age of 89, Coretta Scott King wrote of him, “At a time when the nation’s most prominent clergy were silent, Archbishop [Raya] courageously supported our Freedom Movement and marched with my husband. Throughout his life, he continued to support the nonviolent movement against poverty, racism, and violence.”
On this Transfiguration Sunday, as we are again dazzled by that holy vision of the glorified Jesus on the mountaintop, may we remember that the Lord is with us still. He reaches out to us in our fear and confusion and reminds us that there is work to be done. May we go forth to be the light, transfiguring our world, one simple act of kindness and justice at a time.
Robert H. Stein. “Is the Transfiguration a Misplaced Resurrection-Account?” Journal of Biblical Literature, 1976, pp. 79-96. Accessed online at https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/jbl/1976_stein.pdf
Robert Klesko. “A Profile in True Social Justice — Birmingham’s Archbishop Joseph Raya,” National Catholic Register, Sept. 27, 2021. Accessed online at https://www.ncregister.com/blog/archbishop-raya-true-social-justice
Lesya Sabada. “Archbishop Joseph Raya – Apostle of Peace and Love” in Arab America, Nov. 13, 2014. Accessed online at https://www.arabamerica.com/archbishop-joseph-raya-apostle-of-peace-and-love/
–. “The Greek Archbishop That Marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.” in Greek Gateway, June 2, 2020. Accessed online at https://www.greekgateway.com/news/the-greek-archbishop-that-marched-with-martin-luther-king-jr/
David Lose. “Commentary on Matthew 17:1-9” in Preaching This Week, March 6, 2011. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Ronald J. Allen. “Commentary on Matthew 17:1-9” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 19, 2023. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Eric Barreto. “Commentary on Matthew 17:1-9” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 23, 2020. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became bright as light. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I[a] will set up three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, the Beloved;[b] with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they raised their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9 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.”
image: “Transfiguration” by Kelly Latimore (Vanderbilt Divinity Library- Shared through Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike 3.0 License). Accessed online at https://www.pulpitfiction.com/narrative-notes/3-29.