“Who Do You Say I Am?”
Jesus’ transfiguration came fairly late in his ministry; it is recounted toward the end of the Gospels of Matthew (17:1-9), Mark (9:1-8), and Luke (9:27-36). In fact, it could be said that the Transfiguration was the “beginning of the end” of Jesus’ earthly life. Shortly before his mountaintop transformation, Jesus told his disciples plainly, for the first time, that it would be necessary for him to suffer and die, but that he would rise again to new life on the third day. Only at this point—and after Jesus had performed his dramatic miracles, like healing the blind and the possessed, walking on water, and raising the dead—did Jesus consider the time right to disclose God’s mysterious plan for him to his closest followers.
The spur to this revelation was Peter’s response to a question Jesus had posed to his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Without missing a beat, the fiery Peter spoke up: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus praised Peter for his faithful profession, but also went on to reveal the dark path that would lead to his resurrection: “From that time on,” says the gospel,
“Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering; that he would be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21).
Yet on hearing this, Peter quickly backtracked on his profession of faith. “God forbid it!” he gasped. Overwhelmed by Jesus’ morbid prediction of his own suffering and death, Peter had forgotten the most important part of the story: the promise of Christ’s resurrection. Peter’s faith, it turned out, was only skin-deep.
This exchange provides the background to the Transfiguration. Jesus invited his closest friends, Peter and the brothers James and John, to climb a high mountain to pray. None of the Gospels gives us the name of the mountain, but tradition identifies it with Mount Tabor, located west of the Sea of Galilee. Suddenly, Jesus’ appearance dramatically changed. His face gleamed like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white—whiter than any bleach could bleach them; as white as a flash of lightning. Just then, as if walking out of the mists of time, two heroes of the Old Testament appeared: Moses and Elijah. They stood at Jesus’ side talking with him.
Peter, inspired once again by the moment, called out to Jesus: “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But suddenly, while he was still speaking, a bright cloud appeared and covered them all, and a voice spoke from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. With him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
The disciples were terrified. They fell down and buried their faces in the ground. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Do not fear.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
On Mount Tabor Jesus is revealed to be God’s beloved Son, sharing in the divine authority and power of the Father—and indeed equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit as one person of the Holy Trinity. “God from God, light from Light, true God from true God,” as the Nicene Creed puts it. And yet from this divine glory, “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up, and do not be afraid’” (Matthew 17:7).
The heart of our Christian faith is encapsulated in that one gesture, that single phrase. God sends his Son down from heaven to meet humanity in its hopelessly lost condition: to touch us, to remove our fears, to heal us. God’s touch, in Jesus, is eternal and irrevocable. Once God touches humanity, in the person of God’s Son, then we are connected to God’s eternal life, so long as we remain open—that is to say, faithful—to Jesus. This is nothing less than a glimpse into the mystery of the incarnation of the Son. As our Creed reminds us: “For us and for our salvation [he] came down from heaven, took body, became man, was born perfectly of the holy virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit.”
Normally we look to the story of Jesus’ birth as the iconic expression of the incarnation of the Son of God. But the reality of Jesus entering our lives with a healing touch is ongoing and eternal. It is illustrated throughout the New Testament. And through the eyes of faith, it is perceptible in our own daily lives.
Jesus’ divine light empowers us, in joy and hope, to acknowledge God’s power and love for humanity: in other words, to worship him. Through the Holy Spirit, God “inspires” us, literally “breathes into us,” his infectious love. And touched by that love, generations of Armenians, along with Christians the world over, have instinctively responded with heartfelt worship: our own song of love to almighty God.
– From “Living the Gospel of Christ: Transfiguration
(Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America)
Click here for a PDF copy of the Transfiguration book