Apart perhaps from the Ascension, there is probably no more majestic scene portrayed in the all the gospels than the Transfiguration story. Like Daniel’s prophetic vision of one like a Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, the scene is meant to impress. The story is intended to silence us as we stare in awe. That should be particularly challenging for us given our contemporary bias against being impressed, our casual informality which prefers to treat important things as if they were unimportant, our allergy to silence which we try to avoid even in church by making endless noise. But, when Peter tried to participate in the experience by making more noise of his own, God himself shut him up, with the command: “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.”
“Shut up and listen!” How many times did our parents and teachers tell us that when we were kids! Peter, James, and John are kind of like children in this story – excited by what they are experiencing, but for the moment quite clueless about its meaning. Later in life, Peter will in turn instruct us to be attentive to the message in this story, but, before he could do that, he had to learn that lesson himself – as we all must.
According to Saint Matthew, Jesus was transfigured just six days after he had famously put his disciples on the spot by asking them, “who do you say that I am?” Peter had spoken up on that occasion too. And, Peter being Peter, he gave the right answer but then showed how completely clueless he was about what it meant. And so Jesus both praised him for giving the right answer and then reproved him – called him Satan in fact – for missing the point. Presumably Jesus intended his transfiguration to reinforce the lesson he was trying to teach.
So when God’s voice told Peter to listen to Jesus, he wasn’t telling him to listen in the inattentive way we listen to all our accumulated background noise - or to listen in the inattentive way we so often listen to one another, while we impolitely check our phones or are otherwise distracted. No, “listen” here means to pay actual attention. Passing on this lesson later in life, Peter switches from audio to visual imagery, telling us “to be attentive, as to a lamp shining in a dark place.”
In our electrified world, we have little experience of true darkness. But, if and when we do, we suddenly appreciate the effect of a light shining in the dark. Think of that scene in the movie Titanic, for example, when the traumatized survivors, sitting in their little lifeboats in the dark ocean, suddenly see the light of a rescue ship on the horizon!
Like Peter, we can all easily hear Jesus through the filter of our preconceptions and preconditions. The challenge is to cut through all that, to let go of all that, to experience God’s presence and action in our lives in Jesus as unfiltered as that rescue ship’s light appeared in the dark North Atlantic. Listening like that then becomes the life-transforming experience it eventually became for Peter and is intended to be for all of us.
And who knows? Our lives having been truly transformed by Christ, we may even start seriously listening to one another as well. And wouldn’t that transform the world!
Homily for the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 6, 2017.