Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.
And all were astounded at the greatness of God. While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, …
I enjoy telling the rather “corny” story of the man carrying a violin in a case, who emerges from Grand Central Station onto the streets of New York. A visitor to the city, he stops at a homeless man propped up against a wall on the sidewalk and asks him, “Excuse me sir, can you tell me how I can get to Carnegie Hall?” The drunk squints up at the man and the violin case and answers, “You gotta practice man, practice!”
Today’s reading has something of that ironic misunderstanding about it. It is a passage of contrasts. Luke, our gospel writer/editor frames the narrative in a way that enables us best to glimpse the contrasts. There is a mystical drama unfolding on the summit of the mountain, and a very human drama unraveling at the mountain base.
Jesus has been teaching the disciples and sending them out on practical ministry events. He has been feeding the crowds and encouraging them in the simplicity and struggle of their daily existence. He has been testing the disciple’s understandings of who he is, “Who do you say that I am?“, and he has been spelling out the cost of discipleship with the gruesome analogy of carrying a cross.
After all the activity of the opening verses of Luke 9, we now find Jesus taking three close disciples and going up “the mountain” to pray. After all the hands-on and direct encounters early in the chapter, the events on the mountain take on a very ethereal mood. There is what the mystics call the “Tabor Light“, the glorious radiance of the Shekinah glory of God associated with moments of epiphany and transformation. The disciples are sleepy, just as they will be portrayed in the garden of Gethsemane the night of Jesus’ arrest and trial. What is it about our psyche that wants to fall asleep at the very moment we are faced with moments of enlightening growth and challenge? “Can we not watch one hour, because the weak flesh cannot keep the pace of willing spirit?” (Matthew 26:41) Here, at least, says Luke, the disciples manage to stay awake and see the transforming glory of Jesus as well as the meeting with archetypal characters Moses and Elijah, who embody the pillars of Judaism, namely, the Law and Prophets.
This meeting has all the power of that classic encounter of Frodo with Gandalf in Lord of the Rings.
Frodo: I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.
Simply exchange the word cross for ring and Moses and Elijah for Gandalf, and you have one of those timeless moments when vocation and destiny collide and the inevitable consequences of obedience are glimpsed in all their fearful reality. How consoling to know that the faith ancestors, will come to us at those times to steel our shivering spines!
When Peter decides to build a mountaintop monastery, it feels to me that our proto-church leader, is simply verbalizing religion’s motivation to settle in moments of God’s blessing and to avoid the ongoing, cross-carrying journey which all encounters of this nature are designed to fuel. We who, thanks to Luke, know what is happening at the foot of the mountain recognize that Pilgrims and not Settlers are needed for this enterprise of healing the world.
Don’t you just love the precious parental presence that does not smite nor embarrass Peter? God simply envelops the entire community in a blanket of glorious unknowing which renders all our best building plans facile.
In that cloud of glorious unknowing, the Baptism voice of God again affirms who Jesus is, and encourages us all to listen to him.
In keeping with all mystical transmissions the moment is over as quickly as it began.
I would like to think that the silence which the disciples held about this moment they shared with Jesus, had more to do with profundity of the experience than with mere exclusive secrecy.
Perhaps I, in the evangelical church, could do with less testimony and more transforming silence? After all, how does one put these things into words. Like Mary, I would do better to “ponder these things in my heart and think deeply about them.
The Cross waits for Jesus, the gates of Mordor for Frodo.
Isn’t it ironic that the Only Son who will be lifted from the earth by evil shadows of power, is here at work restoring another only son who is being dashed onto the earth by the same dark forces?
A world oppressed by a plethora of unclean spirits meets me every time I come off the mountain top moments of transformation. There is no avoiding the encounters, but if I treasure the silent secret of what I have seen in the cloud, my heart will not break nor quake as I touch the darkness with the cross cutting into my shoulder.
“You gotta practice man practice“