Everything I Knew about the Transfiguration Was Wrong

The Transfiguration is a weird story. What is it doing there? Why does it pop up in the middle of the action?

I bet I can summarize pretty much every Transfiguration sermon you’ve ever heard. They usually take one of three tracks.

The first is: Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets.

In an Old Testament-friendly interpretation, these two are on the mountain with Jesus to give him a friendly pat on the back and encourage him along. Sort of like a collegial visit from the celebrities of the past.

In an Old Testament-not-so-friendly version, they are on the mountain with Jesus to give way to him and acknowledge how their religion was kind of lousy but Jesus will go on to do way better.

The second kind of Transfiguration sermon exults in the fact that Peter was an idiot.

That babbling fool, unglued by fear, stutters out the first thing that comes to mind. I mean seriously, who needs a booth? Poor deluded Peter is trying to nail down glory and keep it all to himself. Or at least he wants to be the bouncer who keeps the riff raff out, exclusive access to grace and glory coming through himself alone.

A popular extension of this version of the Transfiguration sermon gets pulled out on the last day of camp. All the kids are super sad about having to leave their mountaintop thrills and return to the boring routine of home on the plains. So the counselor/chaplain admonishes: Don’t be like Peter trying to make this high last forever. For heaven’s sake, there’s work to do!

The third kind of Transfiguration sermon is an improvement over the first two, because it actually gets around to noticing Jesus! Astonishingly enough, he is the center of the story in his dazzling white garments (if you’re in Mark) and his radiant face (if you’re in Matthew or Luke).

The obvious interpretation here is that, in the Transfiguration, we’re getting a little preview of the resurrection, how Jesus will be after all the cross business is over and done with. So hold on, Holy Week is gonna be rough, but it’ll all come out fine on Easter morning.

Now’s the part where I admit to having approved and eventually committed Transfiguration sermons of all three types. Over the years I’ve gotten more and more uncomfortable with types one and two, as I’ve come to love the Old Testament dearly and have developed appreciation, even affection, for Peter as the icon of all of us confused but well-meaning disciples.

But I always assumed number three was at least correct.

Because honestly, the Transfiguration is a weird story. What is it doing there? Why does it pop up in the middle of the action? Why does Jesus gleam? Why do only three disciples get to see it? Are Moses and Elijah alive? Are they ghosts? Or what?

The Resurrection is hard enough to swallow for modern people. Do we really need to add on this extra weirdness of the Transfiguration? The easiest way to manage the latter is to make it a subset of the former.

Even so, after just a few years in the pulpit, I ran out of things to say about the Transfiguration. Options #1 and #2 were out, and it seemed kind of boring to repeat #3 over and over again. So, purely to solve my own preaching problem, I started poking around in the literature on the Transfiguration.

I was surprised by what I found. Then intrigued. Then startled. Then … obsessed.

All thanks to Peter.

Because it always bothered me, niggling at the back of my mind: why did he offer to build booths? Why not, say, thrones? It’s such a weirdly specific offer. Maybe he was babbling incoherently, but doesn’t babbling reveal what’s really going on deep in your brain? What was going on in Peter’s brain that made him pop out “booths?”

Searching for an answer to that question sent me back to the Old Testament. That’s where I rediscovered the ancient Festival of … Booths!

Christians tend to know all about the Festival of Passover, since that’s what was happening in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified. But we tend to forget or ignore the Festival of Booths.

At one time, the Festival of Booths was the festival of Israel, the culminating harvest festival in autumn. It was (and still is) observed by actually building booths, temporary structures decorated with all kinds of greenery to celebrate the gathered bounty. Over time, the festival took on eschatological significance, too—pointing toward the final spiritual harvest when all peoples will truly know the Lord God of Israel.

Both Passover and Booths are commanded by God in Exodus. In due course they became pilgrimage festivals, which means that best practice was to travel to the temple in Jerusalem to observe them. That is why, in fact, Jesus was in Jerusalem for Passover at all. In the Gospel of John, earlier in his ministry Jesus goes to Jerusalem also for the Festival of Booths (ch. 7).

Sorting out the interconnections between Passover and Booths that suddenly put the Transfiguration in a whole new light. It comes down to a question of what kind of story Jesus is headed into: a Passover story or a Booths story.

Just before the Transfiguration, Jesus told Peter that he was headed into Passover: he would go to Jerusalem to be handed over and crucified. Not surprisingly, Peter hopes that Jesus is headed into Booths instead, the final spiritual harvest when all will be well. He’s wrong, but wrong for good reasons! You can see how the vision of a transfigured Jesus would give Peter reason to hope that Jesus could just skip over the sacrificial lamb of Passover and instantly become Lord of the final harvest.
Figuring that out was already hugely illuminating in my quest to understand the Transfiguration. But if you’re going to investigate those two pilgrimage festivals of Israel, you might as well investigate the third pilgrimage festival as well, which is… wait for it… Pentecost!

Did you realize Pentecost was a Jewish festival before it was a Christian one? I grew up in the church and yet I still didn’t realize that till I was about 30… and I’d even gone to seminary!

It turns out that the last piece of the puzzle was Pentecost. That explained why the Transfiguration and the Resurrection are not actually the same thing, and the first is not a preview of the second.

I hope by now you are at least surprised, if not yet obsessed! Either way, I encourage you to start following the pilgrimage trail to see the Transfiguration in a whole new light—a dazzling light.

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For lots more on this topic, check out Sarah’s Kickstarter campaign for her new book, Seven Ways of Looking at the Transfiguration!

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