Those with keen eyes will notice that the stole around my neck is not one I normally wear at Christ Church Cathedral. The Cathedral owns a set of lovely, embroidered white damask stoles, and, admittedly, my stole doesn’t match our beautiful Cathedral hangings. Even so, it is important to me to wear it today, because today is August 6, which is the date on which we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration is, as we just read in Luke’s Gospel, that event at which Peter, James, and John first experienced Jesus in his truest form, in divine glory. But why this stole on this day?
Going back almost to the time of Jesus himself, Mount Tabor in Galilee has been considered the site of the Transfiguration. And a little over a year ago, I stood on the summit of Mount Tabor with a group of fellow pilgrims, and I celebrated the Eucharist in the open air using a rock as an altar…and wearing this stole. Perhaps on the very plot of ground where Jesus stood; perhaps, rather, where the three apostles grew heavy with sleep; or perhaps on the spot to which Peter pointed and said he’d build three booths. Regardless, we were on holy ground. That day, this very stole was a companion for me, connecting me to one of the Bible’s most auspicious events.
But what is the Transfiguration, and why does it matter? In the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Transfiguration is the hinge, the pivot of the entire Jesus story. The first half of that story, before Jesus and his friends climb Mount Tabor, is about a teacher and wonder worker who travels around Galilee healing the sick and exorcising demons, making life more bearable for the people he meets.
The second half of the story, after Jesus and his friends come down the mountain, is about a man with his face set hard toward Jerusalem, who marches without wavering toward his own death, and who finally defeats death on Easter. After the Transfiguration, Jesus performs few miracles, and he offers relatively little balm. Instead, he shows the depth of God’s love by giving his very life in love, by refusing to match destructive power with destructive power, and by breaking the bonds of the grave.
It’s two different stories, really, with a pivot in the middle. And that pivot is the Transfiguration. What makes the difference? What changes on that mountain? We’ll come back to that in a minute.
From the top of Mount Tabor, if one looks to the southwest, one sees another hill, this one much shorter and flat on top. It is Tel Megiddo, and it stands sentry at the northern end of the only pass through the Carmel Mountains. Long before Jesus climbed Mount Tabor, Megiddo had an illustrious and bloody history. For centuries, Egyptian armies from the south and the armies of various empires from the north collided at Megiddo, as it opened up to the Jezreel Valley northeast of the Carmel Mountains. The Jezreel Valley was the first flat expanse of land for many miles in any direction, and so it became the site of more epic battles than one could count. The great Old Testament king, Josiah, for instance, died at Megiddo, when he vainly tried to stop the Egyptian Pharaoh from moving north. And not all the battles were ancient. As recently as the First World War, British General Edmund Allenby decisively beat the Ottoman Turks at Megiddo.
You may think you’re hearing about Megiddo for the first time this morning, but I promise that you are not. You see, in biblical times the history and myth about bloody Megiddo were so potent, so well-known that in his great vision of apocalypse St. John the Divine imagined this hill and the plain surrounding it as the site of the world’s great, final cosmic battle. But St. John wrote his Revelation in Greek, and the Greek name for Megiddo…is Armageddon.
So you see, on that bright day last year when the pilgrims and I looked down from Mount Tabor, we were staring at Armageddon. And the same is true of Jesus two thousand years before. As Jesus pierces the veil between the material and spiritual worlds and confers with God’s prophet Elijah and God’s lawgiver Moses, he does so while gazing down at the most devastating place the world had ever known, one of the bloodiest places the world would ever know, and—if St. John is to be believed—the place where the ultimate pitch between good and evil will finally be fought and won, one way or the other.
Jesus would have looked down on that plain of death, that center of destruction, and intuited the end game of what humanity does to humanity, the pain we cause, the violence, the disregard. He’d have seen through the eye of his soul the havoc to come in human life, perhaps all the way to our own day, and I suspect it was then that Jesus had had enough.
If shadows could cast upward, then surely Megiddo would have enshrouded Tabor in darkness, except in that moment Jesus, the light that darkness cannot overcome, chooses for the first time to shine in glory. He is transfigured, and suffused with that light everything looks different. You know how the world looks through the first sunbeam after days of rain? How new? How innocent? How full of promise? Imagine that magnified exponentially. In that moment, Peter, James, and John see the world for the first time as it truly is, as God created it to be, not dark with death, but alive with splendor.
There is so much light that they are confused and terrified. Their minds become foggy, because they—like us—are so accustomed to seeing the world as a dark and foreboding place, and mistaking the shadows for reality.
But not Jesus. The splendor that shines through him, through his connection to God, makes him resolute. From Mount Tabor, he walks down into Armageddon, into that place of so much human destruction, through it, and turns south toward Jerusalem. From that moment on, Jesus will not stop or stumble. He will give everything to walk through our Armageddons, to dispel our shadows, to break open the tombs in which we encase ourselves, to burn away all the clouds that confuse us, and to reveal to us that love is the only real thing and that it suffuses the world.
Just as for Peter, James, and John, this is the moment when we, too, must decide which world is real and which one we will live in and live for. What are we to do? We are to see this world transfigured, and to make our decisions—to hate or to love, to brood or to shine, to cower in booths or to walk steadfastly through the plains of destruction in favor of light and life—all in the wake of the world’s splendor. Christ is transfigured, and Christ transfigures the world. It has never been more important than it is right now. Do you see it? Will you bring Mount Tabor into Armageddon?