Hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims visit Israel every year with a hope to retrace the footsteps of their Lord and Savior. They want to touch the stones he touched, walk the paths he walked, see, feel and experience everything He saw and felt. All in the hope to gain spiritual closeness and connection with Christ. Many of the pilgrims visit Mount Tabor, the sight of the Transfiguration of our Lord which we are celebrating today. Once the pilgrims reach the mountain, they have to exit their busses and take a taxi to the top of Mount Tabor. They say that the taxi drivers of Mount Tabor are especially loved by God because there is usually more praying happening in those taxis than the rest of the day as they rush to get the pilgrims up and down the narrow road of the mountain.
Transfiguration is a story about a divine encounter. It is about finding, meeting and experiencing the extraordinary God within our ordinary lives. It is about Jesus taking three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, with him to Mount Tabor. There, the disciples were presented with a rare and precious opportunity to see Christ revealed in his full glory and majesty. There Jesus appeared radiating with bright light of holiness along with the great prophets of Israel and the voice of the God the Father manifesting his divinity and exhorting the apostles to listen to him.
Imagine how the disciples felt when they saw and witnessed everything they believed and hopped for suddenly become a reality. Imagine what they experienced when their entire faith and heritage suddenly came to life. Imagine what it might feel like to see Christ in all his glory, to be able to hear the voice of God talk to you. For the disciples, this undoubtedly was a moment of utmost surprise and utter joy filled with the presence and blessing of God.
It is quite easy to feel the presence of God in our lives when things work out, when we are surprised by joy, when something good beyond our imagination happens in our lives. But that is not how life always works. How can our lives be transfigured by God’s presence and blessing when we are surprised not by joy but by the realization of our worst nightmare? When the heaven appears to be silent to our prayers, and the world we live in is indifferent to our pain?
In fact, the story of the Transfiguration answers these questions in the greater context of the biblical narrative. The story of Christ’s passion and crucifixion offers a strange parallel and contrast to Transfiguration. I believe these stories and events are deeply connected. Both stories take place on a mountain or a hill. All three disciples are present in both of the stories. In Transfiguration, Christ is revealed in glory and during crucifixion in shame, defeat and betrayal. Here, his clothing shines in white; there, he is stripped off his clothing. Here, two of the greatest symbols of Jewish faith appear along Christ to endorse and proclaim his ministry; there, He is abandoned by his disciples and friends. During Transfiguration a bright cloud covers the skies; and during Crucifixion, darkness takes over the scene. Here, Peter is astonished by the glory of Christ; there, he denies ever knowing him.
Ultimately, both Transfiguration and Crucifixion are about being surprised by the humility, love and power of God. Though the circumstances are radically different, it is the same God, the same Savior and glory revealed in both of the stories. As we see so clearly in the story of Christ’s betrayal, passion and crucifixion – God is indeed able to step in, relate and reveal himself within human grief, loss, betrayal and pain. He does so by transfiguring and transforming the very fabric and essence of human pain and suffering into an opportunity for salvation. Yes, it is hard to comprehend and see how God is present in our moments of hopelessness, loss and grief. It is hard to understand how He transforms and is present in the tribulations of our lives. Yet, today as we celebrate the Transfiguration of our Savior, we are also reminded about the abundant and unconditional love of God which is transfigured and revealed also in our moments of darkness and struggles.