Barbara Brown Taylor teaches at Piedmont College in Demorest, Ga.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 4-11, 1998, page 1-5; copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Jesus, like Moses before him, was about to set God’s people free, only it was not bondage to pharaoh they needed freeing from this time. It was bondage to their own fear of sin and death, which crippled them far worse than leg chains ever had.
Those of us who spend a lot of time in church have heard Luke’s story of the transfiguration so often that we may think of it as a public event. According to Luke, it was not. Only three other people were there, which means it was an event not for the many but for the few. Let us forget for a moment that Luke’s story may not be a factual account of an historical moment. We are not concerned with historicity here. We are concerned with epiphany, which ordinary time and space cannot contain.
Luke’s story begins with Jesus’ wish to pray. He did not wish to pray alone, however, so he took Peter, James and John with him to the top of "the" mountain. Why "the" mountain instead of "a" mountain? Maybe because it was the mountain with which they were all familiar, the mountain Jesus always chose when he was in the area. Or maybe it was because every mountain, no matter where it was, was a ringer for the mountain that towered in the Hebrew imagination. Once the people of Israel had seen Mount Sinai smoking with the presence of the Lord, there were no "a" mountains anymore. Every mountain was "the" mountain, the place where the fiery God might be encountered again.
If that was the case, then Peter, James and John may have had some inkling that this was no routine mission. Then again, maybe not. Perceptiveness was not high on their list of virtues, after all, but even they could not miss what happened next. While Jesus was praying, he caught fire from within. His face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Then, in the circle of his spotlight, two other figures appeared -- Moses the lawgiver and the prophet Elijah -- dead heroes of the past alive in the present, as if time were nothing but a veil to be parted and stepped through.
"They appeared in glory," Luke tells us, which is to say that they appeared inside a white-hot sphere of light. That light had given them their lives, and yet the topic of their conversation that day was death -- Jesus’ death. They did not use the word "death" for what was about to happen, however, and they did not speak of it as something that would happen to him. They used the word "exodus," translated here as "departure," and they spoke of it as something he would accomplish.
With Moses standing right there, the parallel was hard to miss. Jesus, like Moses before him, was about to set God’s people free, only it was not bondage to pharaoh they needed freeing from this time. It was bondage to their own fear of sin and death, which crippled them far worse than leg chains ever had. Whenever they got too brave and eloquent in the face of death, all someone had to do was threaten them and they would go back to being good slaves again, minding their own business and forgetting who they were. So God had planned another exodus for them -- in Jerusalem this time -- where the Red Sea of death would be split with a cross and Jesus would lead his people through.
Elijah’s presence was the divine seal of approval on this plan. He was the one whose reappearance meant the Messiah was due. To see him standing there with Moses and Jesus was like seeing the Mount Rushmore of heaven -- the Lawgiver, the Prophet, the Messiah -- wrapped in such glory it is a wonder the other three could see them at all. But they did see that epiphany, and then they could not see anything anymore, because the cloud swallowed them up. It was still God’s glory, only it was dazzling darkness this time, not dazzling light. For us, they are opposites. For God, they are the same.
Later, when Jesus’ exodus got under way and they saw what it meant for him -- when they saw that shining face bloodied and spat uppn, those dazzling clothes torn into souvenir rags -- I’ll bet they had to rethink what that glory was all about. His face did not shine on the cross. No chariot of fire swooped down to spirit him away; and you have to wonder about that. Why did God hide all the glory on the mountain, where no one could see? Why didn’t God save it for the cross?
I guess because then it would have been a different kind of death from the kind most of us die, and that would not have worked. To lead our exodus, Jesus had to die like we do: alone, with no particular glory. Otherwise he would have been an anomaly instead of a messiah, and it would have been hard for us to see what he had in common with the rest of us.
As it was, he died very much like those who died on either side of him, one of them begging to be saved from what was coming, the other asking to be remembered when Jesus got where he was going. Jesus could not do anything for the one who wanted to be spared, but he did a great favor for the other. He told him that the darkness was a dazzling one, with paradise in it for both of them.
I think it was something he learned on the mountain, when light burst through all his seams and showed him what he was made of. It was something he never forgot. If we have been allowed to intrude on that moment, it is because someone thought we might need a dose of glory too, to get us through the night. Some people are lucky enough to witness it for themselves, although like Peter, James and John, very few of them will talk about it later.
What the rest of us have are stories like this one, and the chance to decide for ourselves whether we will believe what they tell us. It is a lot to believe: that God’s lit-up life includes death, that there is no way around it but only through, that even the darkness can dazzle.