This Epiphany reflection is the final meditation from the Liberti Church 2019 Advent and Christmas Prayerbook.
The Transfiguration has always bothered me deeply. Jesus takes his closest friends to a mountain and is “transfigured”: his clothes turn white, he talks with some Old Testament prophets, God says nice things about him; everything then calms and they walk down the mountain like nothing happened.
But… what is a “transfiguration”? Translators use that word because no one knows what this moment is or was. “Transfigure” doesn’t mean just a change in appearance, but an actual change in substance and form. There’s simply no word in language that can communicate it. “
Transfigure”, then, is an almost nonsensical word. It’s merely a placeholder for something whose meaning we can’t ever know. So even though the words sit there in black-and-white before us, we will never know nor have access to what this actually means or is saying.
And that’s what’s so frustrating to me. This was, aside from the Resurrection itself, the closest Earth has ever had to full, unvarnished divinity making its presence known in this world! Yet we will never be able to have even an idea what was going on? That sits uneasily with me. Why tease us like that?
More significant, though, is what this says about God. I have been going through a deep, dark season of feeling like God is simply not moving and maybe not even there. My soul has been shaken by what has been called “the hiddenness of God”. For me, right now, God’s presence is felt more as an absence, his voice more like an echo from something long ago than a present reality. God feels more like holy hearsay than present truth.
The Transfiguration is hard and painful because it tells me that, even while Jesus was living life deeply with his disciples, even as his literal, physical, tangible presence was working and moving among them, there was a massive amount of who he “really” was that was shielded from them. Even as they knew him, in a profound way, they didn’t.
God’s hiddenness seems to be a feature in how he relates to us, not a bug.
Yet in this moment, the disciples did not concern themselves with such questions. In the Transfiguration, they saw God’s glory and presence with more clarity than ever, and the fact that it had been previously withheld from them did not seem to be an issue. They just wanted to stay there in it. This little bit seemed to be enough and all that led to it seemed to have been worth it.
But Jesus had other plans. As quickly as this spectacle started, it was over. The divine shade was brought back down over creation, over their eyes, and the “regular” Jesus stood once more before them. And they didn’t complain about this. Somehow, both Jesus and the disciples knew that this mere glimpse of glory would have to be enough for now, and that the time of waiting, wondering, questioning, and hoping needed to continue.
In other words, Advent would soldier on. On that mountaintop, the full promise of Christmas was revealed—a preview of what would come at the end. Not then. Not even at the Resurrection. Not now. But at the end of all things with Jesus’ second Advent and Christmas. The shade is still drawn.
So even as we celebrate the end of the Christmas season and enter into Epiphany, we are still in a continuing cosmic season of Advent, where the world is pregnant with possibility, loud with groaning, haunted by doubts, and jubilant with songs of hope and longing, waiting once more for Jesus to be most fully and most finally Emmanuel, God with us. And the glory of the Lord will shine upon us as it did then, but forever.
Merry Christmas (and Happy Epiphany).
[image credit: “Untitled (1951)” by Mark Rothko]