“Behold!” That’s a key word in today’s story of the Transfiguration. It means more than “Look!” or “OMG!” It’s more like “Take a very good look, and then look again, because there is more here than you can grasp.” Interestingly, that word wasn’t used for the description of the change in Jesus’ appearance, as if an intensely bright face and dazzling clothes were not so unusual for the itinerant preacher from Nazareth. Instead, the word was used for the arrival of Moses and Elijah, for the cloud that overshadowed them and the voice that spoke.
“Behold! Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him.” What an interesting description. The disciples receive a vision of the ancient prophets conversing with Jesus. It’s as if to tell the disciples, “Behold, this Jesus whom you know is rooted in the best, the deepest of your tradition.”
Moses and Elijah “were conversing with him,” making it seem as if they were consulting, as if he were the revelation they had been awaiting. Their presence is all the more mysterious because they are two whose fame includes the fact that nobody saw them die — and they were conversing with the one who would overcome death.
“Behold! A bright cloud cast a shadow over them.” The “bright cloud” might seem like a wonderful oxymoron, but it’s not such an unusual biblical image. In the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s glory frequently became visible as a cloud, and in Exodus 13 we hear that God led the people with a cloud by day and fire by night, symbolically confusing their certainty and lighting their darkness.
“Behold the bright cloud,” seems to be the ultimate invitation to risk stepping into mystery.
“Behold! From the cloud came a voice.” This final call heralded some clarity. From that moment on, the disciples were empowered to speak like prophets, with all the certainty of Jeremiah, they could say, “The word of God came to me and declared that Jesus is God’s beloved Son. We must listen to him.”
What the disciples beheld on the mountaintop was what psychologists of religion call a “peak experience.” It was a moment when they understood the truth of who Jesus was for them in a way that was deeper than words could express. No miracle, no preaching, no philosophical argument can produce the interior conviction that such an encounter brings. A bit like falling in love, it’s a life-changing experience that can’t be pinned down any more than Jesus, Moses and Elijah could be housed in tents on the hill. In the truest sense of the phrase, you had to be there.
Most people have at least a few mountaintop moments in their life, times when they know that God is near, that love is the ultimate value, that faith is worth the risk, and in fact, that faith is a promise that demands that we risk all.
Abraham had a mountaintop moment when God called him from his homeland to go off into a most improbable future, a future in which he and his elderly childless wife would become the parents of a people of God too numerous to count. Paul had such a moment when he was stopped short in his persecution of the body of Christ.
We know their stories because those moments changed their lives and although the intensity of the experience was fleeting, it changed them and they remembered it forever.
Behold! That’s the vital word. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in her poem, Aurora Leigh,
Earth is crammed with heaven,
And every bush is aflame with God,
But only those who see take off their shoes,
The rest sit around and pluck blackberries.
We can only see what we are open to seeing. There’s more of God around us than we can take in, but we can also miss it all. Jesus took Peter, James and John up the mountain after they had been with him, after they had been enthralled with the force of his goodness and repelled by his prediction that he would suffer rejection and a shameful death. They loved him and that was enough to open them to more. They were ready to begin to behold who he was in the sight of God. All that was left was to learn to listen to him.
This second week of Lent invites us to behold the Christ of our tradition, to remember our peak moments of faith, and most of all, to listen to him.