By all accounts, this story is among the Bible’s strangest. Jesus has been on the job a little while, learning as he goes. You could say that he’s coming into himself, doing his thing, getting into a pretty good groove as the Son of God. He teaches, then tangoes with demons. He preaches, then performs a trick or two. He raises provocative points, then raises the dead. Thus far, Matthew’s gospel has got Jesus and his merry band of disciples in this predictable enough rhythm: back and forth, back and forth between some signs and wonders here, then saying a few words there. But Matthew puts a sudden wrench in this, today he puts a wrench in business as usual, so that now – rather out of nowhere – we find ourselves in for what feels like a borax infomercial: “Billy Mays here for the Oxy-Christ, who’ll make your whites whiter and your brights brighter.” (“But wait, there’s more!”) I will grant you that the Good Book tells some bizarre tales, but thousand-year-old dead dudes dropping in to picnic at Chernobyl – this is not the sort of thing that happens every day.
Judging by the bumbling of Peter, James, and John, it would seem that the sight of their radioactive rabbi, their million-megawatt Messiah has caught them quite by surprise, too. When they catch a glimpse of the ghosts of great theophanies past, of Moses and Elijah up from the grave, standing there shooting the breeze, well, the boys wedge in with all the subtlety and self-consciousness of a couple of boozy, frat bro wedding-crashers: “It is good for us to be here!”, which is so embarrassing, which is Bible-speak for “Who’s in ‘da house?!” And Moses looks at Elijah with raised eyebrows. And Elijah looks at Moses. And Jesus says, “Gentlemen, where were we?” But Peter pipes up, “If, if we’re going to pull a late one, if, if we’re going to par-tay all night long – ,” And then, from heaven there’s a leading, little “Ehhhemm.” And Peter, again, “You know, it’s like, YOLO, Lord. YOLO.” Until, at last, from heaven, “Ehhemmmmmmmm. Get gravelling! Get with it! The guy is glowing in the dark and gabbing with the dead!” And so the disciples finally hop to and fall on their faces in holy fear. Surely, this story is among the Bible’s strangest. Neon Jesus and necro-hobnobbing: this is not the sort of thing that happens every day.
Of course, strange Bible stories beget sundry interpretations. Everybody and their mother weighs in on this one, with ideas, good and bad both, running the gamut. You might read this story of the man Jesus meeting with God up a mountain as sort of Moses-at-Sinai 2.0, that is, you might remember back to the book of Exodus, remember back a 1000 years or so, when the man Moses met with God, up a mountain and with mists swirling; you might remember that there and then, Moses’ direct exposure to the divine, Moses’ rubbing elbows with the Almighty, remember that it left him, too, looking like a lava lamp, orange and shining like Snooki, so that he had to start wearing a sheet over his head!
Or, alternately, you might read this story about a dense billowing haze and holy, dazzling blaze, this story about fog and fire, alongside any of the umpteen other times in the Old Testament that fog and fire – God’s favorite calling cards1 – that fog and fire stole the show: think, early, early on, in the book of Genesis, there was father Abraham and that spooky floating torch and smoking stewpot which passed over his sacrifice as God sealed the covenant. And think, after the escape from Egypt, after the Red Sea crossing, think of the clouds leading the Israelites on their desert trek by day, and the pillar of flame leading them by night, for forty years, onward to the Promised Land.
Oh, here’s another: you might read this story about booming bellows from the heavens, “This is my Son, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased,” as circling back to Jesus’ baptism, when he heard sounding out from the sky those same words, “This is my Son, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Or you might read this story about Jesus stealing away with Peter, James, and John as a foreshadowing of that final, fateful night in Gethsemane, after the Passover supper, when Jesus again will be alone with Peter, James, and John, and when again he will have a beyond-intense spiritual experience, which – surprise, surprise! – again will become a banner affair for the big three. Jesus will be petrified, will be praying so desperately that he will sweat droplets of blood, and then will be arrested, but the disciples Peter, James, and John snooze, they sleep through it all.
For my money, I read this scripture about Jesus’ face shining like the sun as of a piece with Jesus’ words earlier in the gospel of Matthew (and by the way, this is one of the only other places in the Bible the turn of phrase appears); in Matthew 13:43, Jesus says, “All the righteous will shine like the sun.” All the righteous will shine like the sun, eh? If that reading holds muster, if it’s more than a happy coincidence, the bit about the righteous shining and then Jesus shining, but if it’s a kind of clue to help us cut through the confusion and sort among this story’s array of symbols and allusions and associations, if that reading can stand, then this is no longer a story about something strange that happened to Jesus once, but this is a story about something spectacular that is going to happen to you.
You’ll be just doing your thing, going about your business, in your groove, trying to be a good person, Jesus-style – trying, you know, to let your hatreds, even the ones you’re justified in holding, trying to let them loose, trying to forgive the father who was never there for you, trying to forgive the spouse who stole your heart and slammed the door, trying to forgive the colleague who cheated you, trying to forgive the bigots and the bullies, trying to forgive yourself. You’ll be just doing your thing, going about your business, in your groove, trying to be a good person, Jesus-style – trying to put the bottle at the back of the shelf, trying to read a psalm to start the day, every day, trying to say a prayer once in awhile, trying to sing out on the hymns, trying to give away any cent you can spare to somebody who needs it more, trying to smile and to say hello to the homeless you hurry by.
You’ll be just doing your thing, going about your business, in your groove, trying to be a good person, Jesus-style, but better look out, because in all that, little by little by little, and year by year by year, it will come to be as if lightning strikes, as if your only destiny is to burn. And you will catch fire, because you will have come to love God and love your family and your friends and whatever folk you can think of, come to love them in a manner so impossibly beautiful and large and resplendent that it’ll leave all the rest of us breathless and we will fall on our faces before you, you, God-bearer, whose life blazes forth as a beacon. You will have come to shine like the sun. You will have come to shine like Jesus – you, regular, old Christian lit up and changed from glory into glory, an ordinary transfiguration. It’s the sort of thing that happens everyday.
1 As best I can remember (!), it was Barbara Brown Taylor who used the expression ‘God’s favorite calling cards’ as a gloss for the many, many Old Testament theophanies in which the Divine appears thus.