But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
Three of the four gospels tell of Jesus ascending the mountain with Peter, James, and John. For those who know the story, regardless of the particular gospel we draw it from, the plot is familiar: on the mountain, the disciples see Jesus’ clothes become a bright and dazzling white, and watch as he speaks with Moses and Elijah. Peter offers to build dwellings for Jesus, Moses and Elijah to remain there. A bright cloud overshadows everyone, paralyzing the disciples with fear. A voice from heaven proclaims Jesus as “my son, the Beloved.” The cloud dissipates, Jesus looks again like he has always looked, and they leave the mountain. And the disciples then tell no one of what they have seen.
Nobody ever talks about the Transfiguration. Jesus doesn’t concretely explain to the disciples what they have witnessed, but in today’s account he does tell them not to speak of it until after his resurrection. He doesn’t impart meaning to the event itself, but largely leaves it sitting in the hands of those who were present on the mountain. And Peter, James, and John don’t say anything until after the resurrection, by all accounts. Yet even after his resurrection, there’s not much evidence that the disciples ever say much of anything about this incredible moment, high up on the mountain. The passages in the gospels themselves, and one stray passage in the 2nd Epistle of Peter, all written many years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, are the whole of the witness to what transpired on the mountaintop.
The gospel tells us that the disciples saw the glory of Jesus Christ on the mountain, when the voice roared out from the cloud, they were terrified, and fell down on their faces. And they weren’t simply terrified, but overcome – struck with that deep combination of fear and awe that lead them to collapse to the ground, not solely out of a choice to be reverent, but in a kind of instinctive, reflexive and primal response when in the presence of something – or someone – unimaginably pure, unimaginably powerful, unimaginably holy.
Would the disciples have simply remained there, transfixed in worship, awe, and fear forever? Matthew seems to think so. The disciples remain there, seemingly paralyzed, until Jesus who comes to them, reaches out and touches them, and tells them not to be afraid. Then, and only then, they look up, and see the face of that same Jesus they had known since he called them away from their nets in Galilee. Only then do they stir from their places, rise, and go with Jesus, back down the mountain, back to the world they once knew and were yet to know again.
Somehow, I suspect that after that experience on the top of the mountain, where the disciples fell to the ground, struck with fear and awe, Jesus’ command to them not to tell anyone was somewhat of a redundancy. The deep reverence, deep awe inspired by the frightfully close encounter of Peter, James, and John to the bright, shining, paralyzing revelation of Jesus’ glory would likely tend to make leave them speechless and keep them quiet, lest the luster of the event wear thin, and the vividness and crispness of their memory be worn down by the constant strains of analysis, like the pages of a well worn book of photographs which begins to fray at the edges after constant handling.
But the story, did, of course, get out. Peter, James, and John told someone after Jesus rose from the dead; we wouldn’t have this reading from Matthew to study otherwise. And yet, after two thousand years, the account of the Transfiguration is still vivid. It hasn’t frayed around the edges, or lost its air of ineffable mystery. Jesus and three of his disciples walk up the mountain, and Jesus and three of his disciples descend, yet what happens in the midst of the cloud – the piercing light of dazzling brightness, the voice of God proclaiming the belovedness of his only Son, remains as terrifying and transfixing as ever. As humans we tend to be able to rationalize away any event, or action, or behavior with enough discussion, enough thought, enough language – and it would seem that the same should have been true for the disciples on the mountain. So why not this story, too?
I suspect the Transfiguration remains so resonant, so precise, to clear today because when we follow after Jesus, we’ve been in the same place as Peter, James, and John. We follow after our teacher, friend, and brother Jesus day by day, drawn from our own unique worlds, until one day, we are knocked over at once by the power and the clarity of our vision of Jesus’ glory. Those moments come like shots out of the dark, with little warning, often without preparation, and we become paralyzed with fear, with wonder, and with awe just as the disciples were. The moment hits us when we know ourselves to truly be in Jesus’ presence – in the presence of God himself, and touched by the overwhelming weight of his glory. And just as with Peter, James, and John, we are paralyzed be the vision, caught up in one place, bent over in fear, in awe, and in adoration. And then, suddenly, Jesus reaches out, touches us, and tells us to get up, and appears to us as our friend and brother once again. So we then know ourselves to be disciples of Jesus who is as we are, and yet worshippers of the one who is so unspeakably and infinitely greater than all we can ever begin to imagine.
Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
Nobody ever talks about the Transfiguration. Instead, we react and respond to it, to the undeniable and overwhelming vision and weight of Jesus’ glory, shown to us on the mountain and in the world, and given to us as Christ’s body at the font, and at the table. In the face of God’s glory, manifest and visible, terrifying and awe-inspiring, Jesus comes, and touches us, and says: Get up. Do not be afraid.