Transfiguration: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany Week 8
Epiphany 8 (Year C): Luke 9:28-43 and Exodus 34:29-35
1) This is the last week of the Season of Epiphany; Lent begins next week. For Luke, the Transfiguration is in many ways the mother of all epiphany stories (“epiphany” means “showing forth”), since it reveals Jesus as a prophet par excellence, and above all, as God’s chosen, God’s beloved child.
2) In the verses preceding this passage, Jesus has just articulated what is arguably his most disturbing, difficult teaching of all: that he must suffer, die, and rise again - and that anyone who wishes to follow him must “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). The Transfiguration’s light, then, acts as a kind of reassurance for Peter, John, and James (and for the rest of us!). It’s as if Luke is saying: We’re now making the turn toward Golgotha, and that means descending into the valley of the shadow of death. But fear not! Keep this astonishing, mysterious mountaintop story in mind as we go. Carry it like a torch, for it can help show the way - not least because it gives us a glimpse of where all this is headed...
3) By Luke’s day, many Jews considered Elijah to be an eschatological figure whose return would signal the imminent end of the age (see, for example, Malachi 4:5-6); in that sense, Elijah was among the most prestigious of prophets. And Moses, of course, was thought to be the author of the Torah. Together, then, Moses and Elijah personified “the law and the prophets,” the sacred scriptural tradition the risen Jesus will later interpret for the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:27).
1) The story’s conspicuously precise timestamp - “eight days after” - is likely an allusion to the early Christian notion of Sunday as the “eighth day,” one day beyond the cycle of seven, the day of resurrection, and the day of prayer and worship. Indeed, in Luke Jesus often retreats into the mountains alone to pray, but this time he invites Peter, John, and James (one of the first Christian worship services!), as if he has something to show them.
2) Jesus’ shining face recalls Moses’ radiance when he descended from Sinai, the episode in this week’s reading from Exodus (Exodus 34:29-35), and Jesus’ shining garments anticipate the heavenly white robes in the empty tomb to come (Luke 24:4; see also, e.g., Rev 7:9). Finally, the story's cloud and divine voice also evoke the portrait of God's presence in Exodus 24. In this way, Luke casts this mountaintop encounter with God in terms of Israel’s classic paradigm, thus positioning the gospel within the broad sweep of salvation history.
3) What happens up there? It’s beyond explanation, of course, but at its heart it’s a vision of that mysterious heavenly realm, and indeed of the world to come. Time and space seem to collapse; the world somehow becomes incandescent; and Jesus is suddenly seen engaging Israel’s two most prestigious figures in collegial conversation. What they’re talking about is telling: the Greek word the NRSV translates as “departure” is exodos (“exodus”), a likely reference to Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension - and at the same time to the ancient idea of a “new exodus” modeled on the deliverance from Egypt. In other words, the exodus Moses led was widely thought to be a kind of divine signature, a pattern according to which the Messiah would carry out another deliverance, another liberation for God’s people.
4) Peter (never at a loss for words!) stammers a suggestion: Shall we build you three tents? It's a bumbling, endearing proposal, if a bit tone-deaf and presumptuous (after all, if these three wanted shelter, they likely would have already made arrangements!). Is Peter thinking of the Greek custom of building a shrine at the site of a god’s appearance? Or of the Festival of Booths, commemorating the Exodus? Is he trying to corral the astounding wonder into something more manageable, more domesticated? Or is he simply “terrified” (Luke 9:34), grasping for something to say, something to offer?
5) Emanating from a cloud, God’s voice reprises the message at Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3:22). It may be that only Jesus hears the voice in that earlier scene (for there God says, “You are my Son...”), whereas here the announcement is addressed to all who have ears to hear (“This is my Son…”). At any rate, even with Jesus’ identity confirmed in spectacular fashion, the three disciples are stunned into silence. For Luke, true messiahship comes not with trumpets and chariots, but rather in the deeply hidden form of a suffering servant; accordingly, it only comes into the clear with the resurrection and ascension, the ultimate Epiphany.
6) The Transfiguration ends as abruptly as it began; the two older figures suddenly vanish, and the disciples find themselves with Jesus alone. Luke’s message here isn’t that Jesus somehow eclipses or supersedes Moses and Elijah, but rather that he stands in profound kinship and continuity with them, both carrying on and culminating their work.
7) Finally, just as in this week’s reading from Exodus, where Moses descends from the mountain and teaches the Israelites, Jesus descends from the mountain and continues teaching his struggling disciples. The very next day, Jesus heals a boy possessed by an unclean spirit - and here again, Luke emphasizes the kinship between Jesus and Elijah by phrasing the story with a near-quote of 1 Kings 17:23: “Elijah took the child...and gave him to his mother” (compare Luke 9:42 and 7:15). Luke’s message is clear: Jesus has come to heal and to liberate. He is a prophet of the highest caliber, like Elijah - and accordingly, his arrival signals the dawn of a new era, a new Jubilee, a new Exodus!
1) In the context of the overall narrative, Luke’s central point in the Transfiguration story is this: the suffering and death of Jesus may at first appear as an unthinkable, desecrating defeat, but it’s actually a step toward a dramatic, subversive victory. Jesus will now venture into the shadows of death - precisely in order to scatter those shadows once and for all, overcoming them in the end with shimmering light. Jesus will go down into the depths of what can only be called godforsaken - precisely in order to lift the world up into renewed intimacy with God, the sort of intimacy familiar to Moses (the one who “knew God face to face” (Deut 34:10) and even “mouth to mouth” (Num 12:8)); familiar to Elijah (the one who heard God in “the sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12)); and familiar to Jesus, God’s begotten child. So: take heart! And “listen to him” - that is, continue to trust and walk with Jesus, following in his footsteps and taking up his mantle, even though the path ahead now seems strewn with danger and disgrace. A new Jubilee, a new Exodus is dawning, and radiant beauty awaits - on the other side of Golgotha.
2) Think of this passage itself as a high “mountain” in the midst of Luke’s Gospel. On one side, we climb up through stories of Jesus’ healing, liberating ministry. And on the other side, we’ll descend down to Jerusalem. Today, we arrive at a clearing on the mountaintop - and from here we can survey both how far we’ve come and the Lenten journey ahead. Epiphany concludes today: Jesus has "shown forth" to be a healer and a liberator; a teacher and a shining prophet. Peter has just called him “the Messiah” (Luke 9:20). But most fundamentally and decisively, he is God’s chosen, God’s beloved child. His path of love will lead down into the valley, through the dry cinders of Ash Wednesday and the tears of the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrow. But this week, from here where we stand on the mountaintop, we can survey the 40 days ahead, take a deep breath - and remember that the journey through ashes and sorrow is never for its own sake. It's for the sake of what comes next. In a word, it's for the sake of transfiguration: a radiant new life and a dazzling new world.