The season after Epiphany is bookended with two theophanies: the baptism of Jesus and Jesus’ Transfiguration. These are key moments in the life of Jesus, revealing the nature of who Jesus is as the Son of God. In both instances, truly amazing things occur. When Jesus is baptised and emerges from the water, the heavens open, the Spirit descends in the form of a dove and lands on Jesus, and the voice of the Father from heaven says to Jesus, “You are my beloved Son. With you I am well pleased.” Later, in the presence his disciples on a mountain, Jesus’ appearance changes. His face shone and his clothes become a dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appear and begin conversing with Jesus about the task that lay before him. The Spirit overshadows them in a cloud and the voice of the Father again speaks from heaven, this time to the disciples, saying, “This is my son, my Anointed; listen to him!”
These “mountaintop” moments are the sort we have come to love and expect as God’s people. Who doesn’t love the experience of a church service where the movement of God’s Spirit was undeniable? Where God’s glory hung so thick in the air it was difficult to catch your breath? When God’s people pray for revival, these are the type of moments that we are requesting. We long for God’s glory to be revealed in its fullness—as it was in the moments of Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration. I would dare to say that God’s people struggle to imagine that God might show up in a way other than mountaintop moments.
Luke includes a detail in his account of Jesus’ transfiguration that the other synoptic gospel witnesses do not. Luke tells us in chapter 9 that while Jesus was praying the disciples were weighed down with heavy sleep. All three synoptics tell of how the disciples fell asleep while Jesus prayed on the Mount of Olives, but Luke is the only one who says that they almost fell asleep on the mount of transfiguration.
In his gospel account, Luke makes this extra effort to make sure that we do not miss the final theophany in the earthly life of Jesus—his agony, abduction, mock-trial, torture, and crucifixion. Just as Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration bookend the Season after Epiphany, when taken as Passion Sunday, this final Sunday of the Season of Lent sits opposite the transfiguration of Jesus as bookends to the Lenten season.
In the account of the transfiguration, Jesus is revealed to be God’s Son in the ways we would expect—an otherworldly appearance, marked by majesty and power, empowered by the God of heaven. It is the scandal of the gospel that the final hours of Jesus’ life— from his agony and betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane to his final breath on the cross—are no less a revelation of the glory of God than what was witnessed by his disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration. The crucifixion is not a defeat that is undone by the resurrection. The crucifixion was not a blemish on an otherwise perfect record for Jesus. The crucifixion was the victory affirmed and clarified by the resurrection. It was a more profound moment of revelation than any that had come before because of what it revealed about God. God and God’s glory are not just to be seen in the kind of mountaintop moments we expect, with dazzling white clothes and shining faces or waving hands and shouts of praise. God and God’s glory are fully revealed to us in one whose face is pale with grief and dread; in one wearing a robe stained red with blood-drops of sweat; in one beating their chest, crying out in agony; in one tortured and executed in the most humiliating of ways.
The rest of New Testament is clear that the reason that Jesus reigns is his death on the cross. It is because of his death on the cross that he is raised and given power and authority over creation. We must be intentional in resisting the temptation to rush ahead to the resurrection.
Many of you reading this will at least be aware of the practice of the Stations of the Cross. These are 14 moments, taken from the time Jesus was praying in agony in the garden to the time his corpse was laid in the tomb. While some modern iterations include a 15th station for the resurrection, traditional practice of the Stations of the Cross do not include a 15th station. The point of the Stations is to find some hope in what can only be described as the worst—abduction, torture, and murder. The reality of the crucifixion is so counter to our experience and intuition, to everything the world tells us is true. When we rush past the crucifixion to what we perceive as the victory of the resurrection, we lead our congregations in glossing over the fact that the crucifixion is the victory. This is a revelation on which we must prayerfully dwell in hopes that it might take root in our hearts and that we might learn to live not just as a resurrection people, but as a crucifixion people—people who lay their lives down for others, even their enemies, and who do not see such an act as a waste or defeat, but an act of participation in Christ’s death (read: victory).