Robert Alter noticed that the striking thing about the way the story of Moses on Sinai is told, is the “terrifying distance” between him and everyone watching below the cloud. That was rolling around in my head the week I preached this, and somehow the inescapable thought was the loneliness of that scene. And then, even the loneliness of Jesus in the Transfiguration.
In full disclosure, I’m ambivalent about high places. That’s for a number of reasons, not least of which is that,for a few years in my early twenties, the fear of flying happened to me. It didn’t arrive all at once. There was a period of avoidance, then of mild dread, of carefully selecting the aircraft and particular seats— the ones with a head-start for escape from a shattered and burning fuselage. Normal stuff.
Then all at once something sheared off. My mom was sick in California, so I was having to fly to be with her often. And I would press down in my seat, disintegrating as we pushed back and spooled up the engines and took off. In the air, the fever broke, and what I felt was profound apart-ness. As though I had stepped out of life and become only the possibility of landing. Stepped out of the whole separate life of the world where my wife was driving home from the airport and would be making breakfast, where the cutting wing of birds shocked from the trees as we took off, would settle again. A life that was unreachable across clouds, across the freezing and invisible currents of air between us.
Whatever memory of Jesus lies beneath the story of the transfiguration, we’ve received it through the Exodus tradition of God revealed on Sinai—the mountain, the sixth day, the divine cloud, the voice.
The Lord said “Come up to me on the mountain” and Moses did, leaving behind the elders who had begun the climb, whom the Lord said could “bow down from afar.” He left them with instructions because they might wait a long time for him to come back. And he went further, taking only Joshua with him. Then the stupendous cloud came and gathered around the mountain And the Lord called to Moses again, and he went into the cloud, alone.
Hundreds of verses describe what Moses received—all the careful instructions for the tabernacle—but these few we hear are about being held away and apart. And we get no closer to what Moses saw and felt in that cloud than the watchers below, who can only see the devouring fire on the expanse of the mountaintop and the figure of Moses climbing further and further away from them, away from earth and beyond their boundaries.
No voice called to Jesus to go up his mountain. He simply knew, and took along the ones who seem to have been closest to him. Matthew has made a careful, symmetrical little mountain of the story itself, stepping upward toward the voice of God telling these disciples to listen, and then descending. Despite our icons of Transfiguration, this is a story in which what is seen, hides as much as it reveals; the vision stuns beyond vague gestures of language. The voice in the luminous cloud seems to be the part of the story that matters for Matthew, and its clear that “listen” means: listen to what has been un-hearable. Just before the climb to the mountain, Peter refused to accept it when
Jesus tells him how it will be. And when they come down, Jesus will begin to teach them again that he will be betrayed, and killed, and raised again. It is as if they have been taken up the mountain so that they might trust this.
After Jesus’ last supper with his friends, on the night before he was killed he led the frightened and unsettled disciples outside, told them to sit and wait, and he took Peter and James and John with him further and apart. And told them the truth: that he was grieved, even to death, and asked them to stay awake him. Then he went on, alone, to pray, and this time there is no voice.
If you want to say that Matthew means to knit these stories together—means for us to see through the eyes of these same three disciples who’d gone up the mountain, who had to make sense of all God’s light opening around and in Jesus, and then his anguish in the darkness of the garden, the Son, disappearing up the streets in the hands of the crowd—Matthew surely does mean for those who hear, to hear that. But, of course they can’t make sense of it. And the writer—all the writers—have left us what was given to them: an astonishing confusion silence and sound, of presence and absence, of glory and the loneliness of Jesus.
In the shock of light on the mountain, we are given the bare, bright fact of the distance between Jesus and those who followed him. In the light—in the conversation with Moses and Elijah, in the bright cloud to which he belonged—there was a moment of communion that opens, and then snaps closed. And the disciples saw no one except Jesus in the sudden darkness of vanished light. Jesus, alone in the fact of his ordinary flesh, with all its longings and disconnections, and his promise to be with them until his death, and then always.
Whatever the disciples saw in the face of the transfigured Jesus, it was the voice from the cloud that overwhelmed them— they were thrown down, so frightened they could not get up. And what Jesus does, is touch them. He touches these afraid ones. That is how the transfiguration ends. It is almost as though he turns away from it for their sake.
He touches them, and then there is Jesus in the empty air. No one except Jesus himself alone. This is the only time in Matthew’s gospel that he touches his disciples in this way, and he touches them the way he touched the sick, touched the dead girl, touched the blind men and for the same reason: moved with love, he touched them. And there is our vision: Jesus, who’s suffering, who’s impossible loneliness, is a womb of compassion. Who was on the ground in the garden reaching, reaching, to be himself for us, to draw and hold all things finally together. Who rose to look at his betrayer and called him, “friend.” And there’s the light again.