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 dazzling white. 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 will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 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!” 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 looked up, 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.”
Five-year-old John had been brought to our Pediatric ER because he was “acting out” at school and at home. Born to a crack-addicted mother who beat him and burned him with cigarettes until Children’s Services (ACS) took him away from her, for four years he was moved from one foster home to the next, and taken from one therapist to the next. John never learned to trust and always stayed angry. For almost a year he had been with just one foster parent, but even though that seemed like an improvement to ACS, it didn’t work: almost daily John was put down at this home, and accused and yelled at. No wonder he was always angry.
I called ACS back into the case and told them that John deserved a chance to live like a happy child. John stayed in my ER for a long weekend as Children’s Services began their work. As our staff paid attention to him, spent time with him, brought him toys, read to him, and played with him, he slowly began to change. Instead of scowling, his face was smiling. Instead of snarling, his voice cried out in delight. Instead of being contorted in agony, his body looked relaxed and playful. Out of little five year old John, the light of life was shining. And his light transfigured the ER staff; all the doctors, physician assistants and nurses and social workers wanted to take this boy home. It was a beauty to behold, and I quietly said the word: transfiguration.
This brings me to the disciples on the mountaintop in Matthew 17. Jesus had recently disturbed his disciples as he talked about his need to suffer and die: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). Just a few days later he took his kitchen cabinet up to that high mountain; and then he was “… transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
Almost literally between heaven and earth, perhaps inside a low-hanging cloud, Jesus undergoes a luminous transfiguration in front of the eyes of his favorite disciples, Peter, James and John. We are told that his dusty cloak shines and glitters like newly fallen snow, and that his face radiates serene peace. Then, suddenly two historical figures take their place on either side of Jesus: “… there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.” Elijah, the critical prophet, God’s hero from the Carmel, and Moses, the legislator from Mount Sinai.
As if that were the most natural thing in the world, those three are talking together. You may find this statement absolutely unbelievable, and you are right if you apply your rational mind to it. Nonetheless, we encounter experiences our minds can’t compute in our nightly dreams. In the quiet of the night it can happen that people make an appointment in our mind: people who are normally separated by time and space, and couldn’t possibly be present together in our everyday life. Think of Jesus with Elijah and Moses on the mountain as a dream sequence, or a poem, or a scene from a movie.
The wondrous gathering of three figures on the mountain top is not the stuff of the mind, but of our higher perception: the heart. But rather than keeping his heart open, Peter tries to squeeze the experience through the filter of his mind: “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.”
Poor Peter is shaken by fear: even though his heart has understood, his mind rushes ahead into something that can be computed. He wants to cement what he has seen, and build permanent housing for the three. He doesn’t want to let go.
Sometimes we are like Peter in that way: our minds want us to nail down something that can’t be nailed down. It is often quite impossible to nail down the sort of things Scripture stories talk about: Elijah ascending into heaven in chariots of fire; Moses covering his face to protect the people from God’s brilliance; Jonah in the belly of the whale; three men thrown into an oven coming out unharmed; Jesus transfigured in a blaze of blinding glory. Just because our minds cannot compute these things, they are no less true.
All these experiences are mysteries we can only marvel at, and believe them. Our minds are made for the stuff here on earth; they can’t believe, only our hearts can. Ours is an age dominated by the mind. Our minds are interested in having things and owning things. Our sense of self-worth is based on what we possess: our cars, houses, bank accounts, real estate, and people we know. Our hearts, on the other hand, are only interested in who we are, in what’s inside; they are made for that which lasts.
The decision Peter, James and John had to make was whether to trust their minds or their hearts; they were brought face to face with reality for the first time, and they saw life eternal in the transfigured Jesus. With the eyes of their hearts they saw Jesus as he really was. His blinding light was the light of life. Rather than having a near-death experience, they had a near-life experience.
When the disciples had finally seen Jesus the way he truly was, they heard a voice they knew to be God’s own, telling them: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Because they had caught a glimpse of his eternal significance before he died, the disciples came to believe that Jesus was the embodiment of everything he said about God; this would help them in dealing with his passion and death, and prepare them for his resurrection.
Where others saw a miserable executed criminal, they gradually came to see a shining human being, as they had seen him in a flash on the mountain. They knew that it had not just been a dream up there on the mountain; it had been a moment of truth.
When I saw the light of life in the face of five year old little John, I was transfigured. Light eternal shone on me and literally enlightened me. I heard my heart say to my mind: “Go away; this is not for you.” And after my heart had chased my mind away, it told me: “Take that light in, let it change you and then reflect it back.”
I did that, and remarkable things happened when the light was reflected back into the world. People were staring at me all week because something about me made them look. They all tried to make sense of the changed me; many asked whether I had changed something about my hair or my beard, but a friend got close when he stared at me and said, “Why are you so darn happy, what is it with you lately?”
Just like I had one such experience of transfiguration in the middle of a difficult case in my Pediatric Emergency Room, I believe that each of us can have experiences in which the light of life shines so clearly that we can’t help but stop and marvel and then reflect it back. Near-life experiences can be had in our workaday lives—and when we bring light to others, we can be near-life experiences to them.
As this is being published, we are exactly four weeks into a new administration that has transformed our country into a place afflicted with chaos and fear. When fear of “the others” is promoted, our Lord’s “least of these” (Matthew 25) are under threat, and as the People of God we are called to act. “Take that light in, let it change you and then reflect it back.” Transfiguration is not a personal possession; it is a communal process. Once the light has shone into our hearts, we can act as a transfigured people, and the people around us need us to do just that.
Let us be near-life experiences to as many as possible. Let us point them to the light and life that comes from our God who doesn’t abandon his people. It is true what our lesson from 2 Peter says: “we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:19).
Let us pray: Holy God, mighty and immortal, you revealed your glory and presence in your beloved Son, Jesus the Christ. In receiving our prayers, reveal the glory and presence of your Spirit alive in the world today, free us from all doubts, and empower us to act as a transfigured people. Amen.
Fritz Wendt, M.A., M.Div., LCSW-R, a native of Northern Germany, is a Lutheran pastor, psychotherapist and church musician living in New York City. He works full-time in the Pediatric ER and Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry of Harlem Hospital.