For me, the narrative of the Transfiguration of Jesus is one of the most mysterious in the Gospels. What was the message? and why wasn’t this vision offered to the other disciples?
Yes, Jesus certainly had established a hierarchy among his apostles. Peter, James and John were taken into confidence on more than this one occasion. Most notably, they were the three whom Jesus asked to follow him into a more hidden recess of the Mount of Olives where he prayed prior to his arrest.
At the top of Mount Tabor, Peter, James and John are allowed a vision of Jesus, along with major prophets of the Old Testament: Moses and Elijah. For Jesus to be in the company of these two prominent figures was to make him at least their equal, for he was not bowed down in front of them but was in their very center. Furthermore, the center position proclaimed his authority, as one was on his right and the other on his left. This amounted to a bold and brave declaration of the supreme holiness of Jesus. No wonder the apostles were astonished.
They had already, through Peter, announced their belief that Jesus was the promised one of God: the Messiah, Emmanuel. The Transfiguration vision cemented that belief.
Nonetheless, no sooner had they come down to earth (literally) than Jesus plunged them into the horror story of his arrest, disgrace and execution. Even though he also added the positive and glorious ending, it was upsetting enough for Peter (having been emboldened by providing the right answer just a short while ago) to declare, “Heaven forbid that any such thing should happen to you!”
Clearly, the apostles themselves experienced no miraculous change.
So what is the lesson in this for me? The evident one is that there is no glory without pain. The reverse is true: there is no pain without glory. They must go together. Pain and death are not the end of the world. These truths are so obvious as to be commonplace. That is, until they actually occur and we experience the pain we thought we had eliminated from our life.
But there may be another aspect.
Jesus, fully human and fully divine, allowed his apostles to observe his divinity. What they were also observing was their own future transformation into beings that were to become the very image of the divine.
Why did Jesus counsel them to tell no one of this event, until after the Resurrection?
I think that this was because to hear of the process of divinization would have been too much for pre-Resurrection, pre-Pentecostal people to understand or accept. We, ordinary mortals, are to be transformed into beings who truly resemble God? Who can accept that!
And yet, “[t]he Christian of the future will be a mystic, or he will not exist at all.” So said the late Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner (in Theological Investigations XX, 149). Mysticism, he wrote, is “a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence.”
We aren’t meant to spend our living years with our eyes shut, stumbling through an often hopeless world. There’s too much that we’re missing if we do not open our hearts to the everyday experience of God of which Rahner speaks.
In her book, Days of Deepening Friendship, Vinita Wright lists 15 common experiences of the divine such as “becoming acutely aware of God’s presence through an overwhelming sense of peace, gratitude, love, awe, or joy.”
A constant and growing awareness, produced by a constant and growing search on our part, is what will bring about our transformation into the divine, into the union Christ prayed for and showed to his disciples at the Transfiguration.