“It is good for us to be here” (Matt 17:4). That’s what Peter said to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. Peter, James, and John had traveled with their Lord up the mountain to pray. Jesus persisted in prayer while his closest followers fell asleep (it wouldn’t be the last time). When they woke, Jesus was shining as bright as lightning. Two Old Testament characters also appeared, Moses and Elijah. The three talked about Christ’s upcoming passion. The Father’s voice bellowed from his approval, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matt 17:5).
It was literally heaven on earth. It was indeed good for Peter to be there.
But then Peter kept talking. He didn’t know what he was saying (Luke 9:33b). I probably would have been the same way. Always talking, rarely listening. Peter excitedly blurted out, “Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Mark 9:5). He wanted heaven on earth. He wanted to capture this heavenly glory into a tent, a tabernacle. Perhaps he was thinking about his ancestors traveling in tents led by the Ark of the Covenant which was housed in the tent, the Tabernacle. Peter failed to appreciate the fact that the flesh of Christ was the Tabernacle now. This is how God “tented” among his people (John 1:14). The regularly dressed Jesus could not compare with the transfigured Jesus flanked by Moses (the Law) and Elijah (the Prophets) and endorsed by the Father. Peter desired glory. He wanted something better.
As soon as Peter could finish his thoughts, a cloud came down and enveloped the top of the mountain. Moses and Elijah disappeared as quickly as they appeared. When the cloud lifted, Jesus was back to normal, and the voice of the Father was no longer reverberating on the mountain top. It was time to go down the mountain. Back to reality. As they descended, Jesus instructed his disciples to keep this event to themselves. He reminded them once again that the Son of Man would be betrayed into the hands of men (Luke 9:44). It was an abrupt change from the glory of the mountain. We are then told by Luke that “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). It would be his last trip to the capital city. It was time for his death.
The real problem with Peter was he was acting like a theologian of glory. He saw the transfigured Jesus through the lens of glory. It looked good. And he made the rational conclusion that this good glory would be good for the cause. I know I would have acted in the same way. I would have said, “Yes, this is good. Lord, once everybody sees you like this they will certainly join our ranks. You have the backing of Moses and the Prophets. How could they not follow you? This is good for the cause.”
God says, “Cross,” and we say, “Glory!” Sometimes – a lot of times – he knocks the glory glasses off our faces.
But that instinct would have been wrong. I would have conveniently forgotten about all those who saw Jesus perform miracle after miracle and did not follow. I would have forgotten about the Pharaoh of Moses’ day, who witnessed ten miracles but still did not trust. I would have ignored the words of the cross that Jesus consistently spoke to Peter and opted for the optics of glory.
But what I see can be deceiving. I must put on the lenses of the cross.
It took Peter a while to put on the right glasses. The next time he slumbered while the Lord prayed was in the Garden of Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday. He woke from his nap as a theologian of glory that night too. He came out swinging a sword at soldiers. It took Peter a while, but God was persistent. It took some embarrassment, some running away, and some lonely nights.
It finally took the Spirit to make Peter a theologian of the cross. And that’s what it took for me and what it takes for you too.
The Spirit speaks to us through words, through the Word. We fight against the Spirit, as did Peter. God says, “Cross,” and we say, “Glory!” Sometimes – a lot of times – he knocks the glory glasses off our faces. He crushes us with law, with suffering, and with trial. Then he puts the lenses of the cross upon us, and we finally see what he told us all along. The Spirit creates faith, and we perceive with the mind of Christ. We see truth. We see an ugly cross as beautiful. We see our crosses as good. We see through the glasses of the cross.
In my tradition, we celebrate the transfiguration event on the last Sunday of the Epiphany season. The next time we gather in church, it is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. There is quite a contrast between the two days. The color is white on the Sunday of Transfiguration, and the mood generally upbeat. Ash Wednesday is dark, thoughtful, repentant, even somber. The Lenten journey to the cross begins. We follow the timeline of Christ. We come down from the Mount of Transfiguration, the finally unveiling (Epiphany) of the Christ, and we “resolutely” head to Jerusalem. It’s time to go to the cross.
I appreciate this rhythm of the church year. We follow in the footsteps of Christ from his birth, to the sending of the Spirit on Pentecost, to his future return. It is a rehearsal of our baptismal intimacy with Christ. In baptism, we die and rise with him (Rom 6:1-4). This Transfiguration – Ash Wednesday transition reminds me that I, like Peter, often get it wrong. I wear the wrong glasses.
So we resolutely head to Jerusalem again. There we will see the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, but we will also see him break through the grasp of death with a resurrection. It is the rhythm of the Christian life.
This yearly rhythm is also a daily rhythm. We do not only see and hear about the passion of Christ, but we are also baptized into it. So our daily rhythm is law and gospel, sin and grace, repentance and absolution. It is our life. It is who we are. We are intimately connected with Christ in our baptism, with our daily dying and rising with him, and even during our yearly rhythmic walk through the church year.
May God bless your Lenten journey this year with new and profound insights into his grace and mercy.