Transfiguration: 7 February Luke 9:28-36 (37-43)
We have jumped ahead in Luke to the transfiguration, but there is also a sense in which Luke, himself, has jumped ahead. In 9:10-17 he reports the feeding of the 5000, drawing on Mark 6:30-44. But then Luke passes over Mark 6:45 - 8:26, taking us in 9:18-22 straight to Mark 8:27-30, the incident at Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is. This gives quite a different feel to the narrative.
The result is that Luke has the feeding of the 5000 after the apostles return (9:10-17), the question about Jesus’ identity (9:18-22), the warnings about discipleship (9:23-27), and the transfiguration (9:28-36). It is as though the feeding of the 5000 functions as a clue to Jesus’ identity and many have seen a connection with meeting between the risen Jesus and the disciples on the Emmaus Road: they recognise him in the breaking of the bread (24:30-31)! Luke may be wanting to encourage the hearers of his gospel to think about the eucharist in this way.
We can also note that Luke leaves out Mark 8:31-33, where Peter objects to Jesus’ prediction of his suffering. Instead, following Peter’s confession of Jesus as ‘the Christ of God’ (9:18-22), we move directly to Jesus’ challenge that all disciples will suffer (9:23-27). The theme of suffering also envelopes the transfiguration story. If people who heard Mark’s account wondered what Moses and Elijah were talking about with Jesus - for Mark does not tell us - Luke informs us: they were talking about Jesus’ ‘exodos’. It overinterprets this word to make a connection with the Exodus. The focus is his death, his departure, in Jerusalem. It is another way of talking about the substance of the Son of Man saying in 9:22.
But this is just one of the threads which links the passages together and so runs through the transfiguration story. It is a highly symbolic narrative rich in texture and was already so in Mark. It belongs closely with the baptism scene. Both present a meeting point of heaven and earth (and assume that heaven is above). In Jesus the two come together. This is central to Christian faith about Jesus, whether we think of God as above or below.
There are echoes of Moses’ ascent of Sinai. Matthew highlights these more strongly: Jesus’ face shines like Moses’ did. Luke is closer to Mark: the garments gleam, but we should probably assume echoes of Sinai also in Luke. The threads of allusion run in a number of directions. The suggestion about tents or hatches echoes the wilderness story which the Feast of Tabernacles celebrates. The cloud recalls the cloud over Sinai, the voice, the divine voice. The words from on high appear to include a phrase from Deut 18:20, where Moses predicts that a prophet like himself will arise and people should ‘Listen to him!’.
The allusion to Moses’ prophecy makes it also likely that there is a deliberate connection between the transfiguration story and the question about Jesus’ identity, because in both ‘Elijah and a prophet’ (doubtless the one of whom Moses spoke). Elijah and Moses (or a prophet like Moses) figured in predictions of the climax of history, not only because of their eminence in the Old Testament (many others were eminent), but also because they were both believed not to have died but to have ascended to heaven. This would have supported the speculation that they might appear at times when heaven makes itself seen. In Mark Elijah is more prominent. It was apparently natural, though incorrect, for people to imagine Jesus might have been calling from the cross for Elijah to come (15:35). On the descent from the transfiguration Mark explains that Jesus identified John the Baptist with Elijah in some sense (9:11-13). Luke omits that discussion.
Many have seen Moses and Elijah as representative of the Old Testament, particularly, the Law and the Prophets, but I find it hard to sustain, since there is little in the passage which points in that direction other than the names. By contrast, the scene has many of the trappings of a vision of the climax of history. The bodies shine, as will the transfigured spiritual bodies of the resurrected (Dan 12; 1 Cor 15). The expected figures appear. Jesus has just spoken of the coming of the Son of Man and the kingdom of God (Luke 9:26-27). We are being given a foretaste of that event. In effect it is saying: what the hearts and minds of the visionaries have longed for is being realised in Jesus and will come to full completion in him.
Heaven and earth meet in him (the space perspective); future and present meet in him (the time perspective), without dissolving the distinction between either. These were very creative ways of making statements about the importance of Jesus in space and time dimensions. This is the Son: listen to him! The transfiguration is a celebration of who Jesus is. Luke adds, typically, that it took place in the context of prayer. The substance of these claims about Jesus is spelled out in the ministry and death.
Luke also presents us with the reactions of Peter, John and James. Only he indicates they were very tired - those who knew the Gethsemane story might have sensed an echo here. Tiredness frequently represented spiritual tiredness. Fortunately they became sufficiently awake to see the glory. Peter’s building suggestion is enigmatic. Mark indicates Peter did not know what to say; Luke suggests he did not know what he was saying, as though there is some meaning to be found here and Peter was not as dumb as he appears in Mark. Peter's proposal finds its echoes in many committees today: let’s build more buildings. Luke may mean the hearer to catch the allusion to the wilderness booths. Nor are the disciples afraid at this point, as in Mark. They become afraid when they entered the cloud. Of their own accord they keep the event to themselves - no instruction to do so, as in Mark.
Awe and silence - appropriate responses. What is seen at one level is the same Jesus who at another lives out the meaning of all those shining threads which merge in the tapestry of the transfiguration. God in Christ is the one who sets the people free from the demons, who by the Spirit which anointed him fulfils his mission announced at Nazareth (4:16-20). Luke does not give the impression that Jesus came to lift people to that higher level, but rather that the elevated insight simply enables us to understand the God of the dust. Down here is where it happens. But in the time and space down here Luke would be reminding us - as he does constantly through his story of Jesus - making time and space for prayer and reflection is crucial if we are to know who he is and where we are going with him.
See also the Prayer for Transfiguration Sunday
Epistle: Transfiguration 7 February 2 Corinthians 3:12 - 4:2