In the story of the transfiguration many voices, from all over scripture, interconnect and intermingle. It is a bit like an echoing well: you call out one word from the story into it and other words start coming back at you from every direction.
There are the connections with Moses and the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. Moses who takes 3 friends and a group of elders up the mountain in Exodus 24, where they had a vision of God and ate and drank. Moses who comes down from the mountain in Exodus 34 with his face shining from the encounter he has had with God.
There is a cloud, a voice, a transforming glory; all aspects connecting the story of Matthew 17 about Jesus with the story of Moses in Exodus.
Then there is the connection to Elijah, the prophet, and Moses the law giver, the two great authorities of the scriptures, joining Jesus and talking to him and treating him as an equal in the vision. And a voice from heaven telling his disciples (and us) to listen to Jesus as the authority surpassing both the law and the prophets.
And with the names of Elijah and Moses two unusual ways of dying may start to echo in the back of our minds too: One is said to have gone to heaven in a chariot of fire, the other was "taken" and never seen again.
But there is more. Who looks at the gospel of Matthew closely will discover that mountains play an important part in the gospel. And not only as a place where the closeness of God is experienced more easily than in other places. Or as a place where the divine was often worshipped by the ancient people around Israel. Or even as a symbol of the "peak" experience religion may sometimes offer us in an existence which is usually more down to earth than moving on the higher and exalted planes of life.
Matthew uses the mountain as one of the ways to structure his gospel.
We find Jesus on a Mountain 5 times in the gospel of Matthew.
A number that may be referring to the Thora, the 5 books of Moses. 5 books in which, for Jewish people, everything one needs to know about God, about life and about humanity is summed up and which are revered with deep awe, thanks giving and praise.
Jesus says, in Matthew 5 that he has not come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfil, and that not one stroke of a letter will pass away until all is accomplished. Jesus, in Matthew, holds the law in high regard and it is therefore quite conceivable that 5 scenes on the mountain is an intentional rather than a coincidental way of relating to the 5 books of Moses.
So what are those 5 scenes?
The first time we find Jesus on a Mountain is when he is tempted by the devil. It is his "coming out" so to speak. The moment where he shows what he is worth and what his priorities are. It is also a moment where for the first time in Matthew the connection is made with the book of Exodus and with Moses: Like Gods people, like Moses, Jesus finds himself in the desert and it is there, where he, like them, grows and matures in his relationship with God.
The next scene is when Jesus teaches the sermon on the mount and shows himself a teacher equal to Moses and the prophets before him. He teaches with authority, and interprets the scriptures and translates them into the lives and time of the people around him.
The third time we hear of Jesus on a mountain is when he is healing the crowds around him in Matthew 15. The mute speak, the maimed are made whole, the lame walk and the blind see and everyone who is there to see it is amazed at what he does. Here again Jesus connects to Moses and Elijah who also, on several occasions, heal the sick that were brought to them by simply touching them or speaking to them.
The transfiguration, the scene we have read about today, is the fourth.
And right at the end of the gospel, in Matthew 28 we find the last: the scene where Jesus, after the resurrection, commissions his disciples and tells them to go out and baptize the nations.
5 Scenes telling us 5 very important things about Jesus:
The scenes tell us about a process of becoming: every scene takes us a bit further in showing us who and what Jesus is, every scene extends his impact and reach. From a lone man facing the devil in the desert, to a teacher sharing his insights with his followers, to a healer of many, to someone who is so close to God that his face shines with it, to the presence of light and love going out into the world for ever. Every time Jesus is on a mountain top we see an aspect of his truest, deepest self revealing itself, increasing our understanding of him in strength, depth and power.
So when we say the word "Mountain" we hear: Sinai, Moses, Law, wilderness, temptation, teaching, healing, transfiguration, commission.
But there is more.
The word transfiguration is a word that is only used 4 times in scripture. Here, in the same story in the gospel of Mark, and in Pauls letters to the Romans and the second letter to the Corinthians. It refers to being "transfigured", or "transformed" into the image of Christ. When not applied to Christ it refers to a process of growing slowly into someone that not only follows Christ but resembles Christ in their life, but becomes Christ like from the inside out rather than from the outside in. Not only following the instructions of the sermon on the mount faithfully, but to grow into a healing, shining presence in the world through which the light and love of God can reach out and touch the lives of many.
When Christ transfigures in this story half way through the gospel, he starts to shine with the light of God, from the inside out and in such a way that his friends are struck down in fear and awe. Here Christ is God and the invitation to his friends is to follow him and be transfigured just like him into people in whom God is. People that will resist the devil, will fulfil the law, will heal and shine among the nations and go out to wherever God calls them to go.
We are only halfway however. Halfway and turning towards Jerusalem for the other half of Jesus story to be told. The story of the crucifixion.
And again all sorts of things start to echo and resonate here for those of us who have learned to listen laterally. When we put the two stories side by side, we discover they are each others mirror image: One positive, one negative, one shining with glory, the other full of darkness and despair.
Where in the transfiguration Jesus clothes becoming dazzling white and his face shining like the sun, at the crucifixion soldiers will gamble over his garments.
Here Jesus two companions are Moses and Elijah, then his two companions are criminals.
Here he is declared Gods son by a voice from heaven, while on the cross this declaration comes as a taunt of mockery.
At the end of the transfiguration story Jesus is alone in his glory with three witnesses who will become pillars of the Church, at the end of the crucifixion story Jesus is alone in his humiliation, once again with three witnesses, but this time they are all women and of seemingly little importance.
This parallel conjures up another parallel: whoever reads the story of the crucifixion will think of the transfiguration: Cross and divine glory are deeply interconnected.
What the gospel of Matthew shows us is who Jesus is and who we are invited to become if we follow in his footsteps. People whose faces, whose very lives, light up with the light and love of God. People who know how to keep their lives close to where they know where God is. People who know, through Jesus Christ, that even where death and suffering may cast their terrible shadow upon us and we find ourselves alone, shunned and beyond what we can endure, God is still there, drawing life from the shadows, bringing love and healing where there was hate and injury to our lives.
Making us shine, with love, with goodness, with light, at the peaks as well as at the troughs of life.