For me, the Gospel readings that we hear each Sunday morning in Church come in basically two varieties: teachings and stories. Teachings are things that Jesus said and/or told us to do. Many are pretty straight forward (though some are less so) and their purpose is to be understood and, perhaps, followed – but that’s the topic of another post. Stories on the other hand are records of the things that Jesus did, his actions, signs and miracles. These too have meanings and many can inform our daily faith walk, but they also seem to want to convey something of the historicity or factuality of Jesus’ existence. These are to be “believed.”
Even though I am a religious professional and have given my life to the belief that Jesus really lived, died and rose again, I’ve always found Jesus’ teachings far easier to deal with than the Jesus stories. Hardly ever do I think, “Did Jesus really say that?” While it is all too often that I wonder, “Did Jesus really DO that?” There’s just something about the stories.
The story of the Transfiguration – Jesus going up on a mountain, meeting with God, Elijah, and Moses, then coming back down with glowing face and dazzling white garments – is, for me, the quintessential hard-to-believe story of the Gospel. Not only is it so packed with symbols (mountain tops, ghostly figures, booming voices, clouds etc.) that it is difficult to fully understand, but at the end of the day it seems to do little to drive or alter the narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry. Everyone (at least everyone reading the text) knows where Jesus is heading and whats going to happen when he gets there. There’s just no news here.
Which for me begs the question: “Do I have to believe that the transfiguration really happened in order to believe the rest of the story?”
In a word: Probably Not.
And before you all go and start calling my church-bosses and ratting me out as a heretic, remember, I said “probably”. Moreover, the Transfiguration is not a part of the ancient creeds of the church. And I am fully prepared (as we all should be) to repent of this error on Resurrection Day when Jesus shows me which parts of the story were 100% fact and which were true for a different reason – recall, there are enough contradictions in the scripture that they can’t ALL be simultaneously factual – but that’s the topic of another post.
In this case, the Transfiguration is of more value as a teaching than a story. As filled with symbolism as it is, it is probably enough to simply ‘understand’ what’s going on even if you don’t yet ‘believe’ that it actually happened this way. So, for the time being, let me outline some of the key symbols in the story so that you might come to a more comfortable place with respect to the narrative.
Mountains = places of truthful revelation, both Moses and Elijah in the Old Testament went up on the mountain to learn the truth
The Voice = God here quotes a portion of the Book of Psalms. The exact line is thought to have referred originally to King David
Earthquakes, Thunder and Clouds = traditional signs of God being really present in a place
Booths or Dwellings = a reference to the tents in which the Israelites crossed the wilderness, traditional in the celebration of the Jewish festival of Sukkoth, which held meaning about harvest time and the coming “Day of the Lord.”
That should be enough to make you thew smartest person at coffee hour. And, don’t worry, in many traditions, this story is read twice every year. I’ll be glad to answer more questions about the Transfiguration the next time it comes up!