A Glimpse of Glory
Reflections on the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1–9)
Sermon preached by Teva Regule, M.Div., Ph.D., on Sunday, August 8, 2021.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit—one God. Amen.
How many of us have ever taken some type of music lessons when we were young (or younger)? For me, it was learning how to play the piano. I can still remember encountering my first piano book—matching the written notes on the page to the keys on the piano and their corresponding sound and trying to train my fingers to move to the proper keys, and occasionally experiencing the joy of playing an entire song. I spent years studying the piano (although it now seems like a lifetime ago). I remember practicing and getting better. At times, I enjoyed playing, but at other times, I felt as if something was missing. It was not until I heard my first piano concerto with full symphonic accompaniment that I got a glimpse of the beauty and transformative power of the music contained within the notes on the page. I was awestruck….
Although not a perfect analogy, this experience reminds me of the experience of Peter, James and John at the Transfiguration of Jesus—the feast that we celebrate every year on the sixth of August. The story is relayed to us in all three Synoptic Gospels—the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Mt. 17:1–9, Mk. 9:2–13, and Lk. 9:28–36). It is included in the section of the biblical narrative where Jesus predicts His Passion and coming into His Kingdom, a biblical reference to God’s reign when He will come in His glory.
According to Matthew:
At that time, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking, when [behold], a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” (RSV)
Perhaps, the followers of Jesus were not quite sure what to make of their encounter with Him. They had spent some time with Jesus, seeing Him perform miracles, and learning from His teaching—they had sacrificed to follow Him. They obviously found His message intriguing. But, this experience… what did it all mean?
So, lets unpack this a bit… The narrative begins by relaying that Jesus took Peter, James and John to a high mountain. A mountain… (I always tell my students that every time they hear of something happening on a mountain in the Bible, they should pay particular attention.) A mountain is often the scene of important events in the revelation of God and the work of Jesus. Moses received the Law on a mountain (Ex. 19–20), Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount on a mountain (Mt. 5:1), and it is the setting of some post-resurrectional appearances (e.g. at the end of the Gospel according to Matthew (Mt. 28:16), the eleven go to “the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them” (NKJV) before receiving the Great Commission (Mt. 28:19–20)). Similarly, it is on a mountain that they receive an important revelation—a glimpse of the glory of God in the person of the transfigured Christ.
But what does this glimpse of glory look like? The text says that “His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as the light” (Mt. 17:2, NKJV). One can just imagine the reaction of the disciples. What was happening to their teacher? They would certainly have known from the Psalms (Ps. 104:2) that it is God who “covers Himself with light as with a garment.” The text then reports that Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. We know from the Hebrew Scriptures that Moses was a man of great stature and the giver of the Law (Dt. 18:15, 19). After his own encounter with God on Mt. Sinai when he received the Ten Commandments, his face shone so brightly that Aaron and the Israelites were almost afraid to come near him. He had to veil himself to speak to the people (Ex. 34:29–35). Imagine the wonder of the disciples seeing one of the main figures of their people with Jesus, not as the teacher, but as a witness. Not only do they see Moses, but Elijah, one of the prophets of Israel—someone whose coming (according to Jewish belief) would usher in the Kingdom or Reign of the LORD. (As it says in Malachi, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes” (Mal. 4.5 NRSV.)) One can just imagine their amazement—Jesus with Moses and Elijah… They might not have understood fully what they were seeing, but one can imagine that they were overwhelmed with a feeling of wonder.
In the next verse, the cloud and the voice are introduced. In Christian thought, the cloud has often been associated with the Holy Spirit. The voice has often been associated with God, the Father. In the text it is given preeminence as it is introduced like many important events or proclamations in Scripture, by the exclamation, “behold” (in Greek, idou). Echoing the baptism of Jesus, the voice says, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” (NKJV). The disciples were awestruck. They had just had this amazing experience. No words can express it—they have just seen and heard the most beautiful “music” in their lives—a glimpse of the glory of God. Jesus is God and we are to “Hear Him!”
But how do we, in this age, “Hear Him”? How can we, in our everyday lives, get a glimpse of His glory? How can we go from the “notes on the page” to the “music”? As it says in the Troparion for the feast—“…God revealed [His] glory in as much as [the disciples] could bear it. Illumine us also with Your everlasting light.” We may not see a bright light or Moses and Elijah but can use the Tradition of the Church as a guide. We ask for God’s help to understand the message of His Word when we pray in the prayer before the Gospel, “Shine in our hearts the pure light of Your divine knowledge and open the eyes of our minds to the understanding of Your Gospel teachings…” For the Greeks, the “eyes of our minds” refers to our hearts—the core of our being—in Greek, the nous. It is when we open our eyes of our minds that we can get a glimpse of the glory of God. According to the Law, we are to love God with all our heart, soul and strength (Dt. 6:5) and our neighbor as ourselves (Lev. 19:18). We get a glimpse of glory of God when we not only know that we are to love God, but we respond to God’s voice in our lives, developing a relationship with Him. It may not be easy at first. Just like learning to play the piano, the first time (or even subsequent times) that we look at the notes on the page or in this case, perhaps, words in a prayer book, we may not realize their potential. But if we keep practicing, we can occasionally get a glimpse of their potential to speak to us on a deeper level. Additionally, we get a glimpse of the glory of God when we not only read about the loving our neighbor (for instance, in the story of the Good Samaritan), but as we heard in today’s epistle reading, “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed [us].”
Jesus gave us a new commandment—to love one another as [He has] loved [us] (Jn. 13:34). Just as Jesus did for us, (and just as we heard in today’s epistle reading) we are to bear one another’s burdens and live in harmony with one another in accord with Him. Harmony; it is a wonderful word to express the unity of life to which we strive. As Fr. Nicholas Apostola reminds us, “those who have sung in a choir or played in an orchestra know that each musician offers their particular note and rhythm. When each one is doing exactly what they are supposed to the outcome is magnificent. The whole is much more than the sum of the parts.” The notes on the page are transformed into a beauty that uplifts—a glimpse of the glory of God.
Through Christ’s Resurrection, God’s reign has broken into history. The Transfiguration gives us a glimpse of this reality. Just like the beauty of music, it is accessible to us now. We do not have to experience physical death in order to experience it. Our relationship with Him gives us the opportunity—the opportunity to not only get a glimpse of His glory but to grow, as St. Gregory of Nyssa proclaims, from “glory to glory.” Amen.
 Origen, Commentary on Matthew 11.42 as referenced in International Critical Commentary, p. 701.
 I thank Fr. Nicholas Apostola for his insights in this section.