Before I became a pastor, Transfiguration Sunday always used to bother me. I didn’t like the way the transfiguration story (Mark 9:2-8, Matthew 17:1-8, and Luke 9:28-36) was treated in church. The churches I attended were always progressive churches, more or less, so the preacher never explicitly insisted that this story is historically accurate. But they engaged with it as if it might well be a factual account.

That’s sensibly politic, in a church environment where at least some of your congregation will be offended if you refer to this or any other passage of scripture as a “legend.” But sensibly politic, in this case, is just weasely and dishonest. The events in the transfiguration story are highly supernatural. They strain credulity, and there is no confirmation from credible witnesses. The sequence of events doesn’t seem to fit particularly well with the rest of the gospel stories—for example, the disciples go on to behave just as cluelessly about Jesus after witnessing this event as they did before. And if the police interrogated these texts, they would be particularly suspicious that Peter, James, and John didn’t tell anyone about these events at the time. The police would guess that this story was invented later—after Jesus was executed, apparently—and you know what the police think of witnesses who change their story.

I would say that this story is obviously more legend than history. We shouldn’t try to read it as an accurate journalistic account of an event in Jesus’ life. Instead, we should read it as a story that our faith ancestors told and retold, polishing it up until it shone, because it captured something important they believed about Jesus. Taken that way, it works for me too. It captures something I believe about Jesus—and about all of us, his fellow children of God.

Transfiguration Shows the Flame

Each life we live will leave a trace
of human grief on human face.
In Jesus’ face we trace those lines,
and yet his graceful spirit shines.

The sound is cold, confused, uncouth,
when human voice speaks human truth.
In Jesus’ human, warming word
the voice of God is also heard.

Our human hands may curse or bless,
attack, defend, assault, caress.
But Jesus’ work-hard hands embrace
with holy love our human race.

Transfiguration shows the flame
of God within the human frame.
As Jesus did, now help us too,
O Light Divine, to shine with you.

I’ve set this to the tune of Conditor Alme, which is an ancient church melody (Sarum plainsong, mode IV). Here’s my friend Ron McCutchan singing it.

As always, sheet music is available in our Free Stuff area.