Summer days in the Holy Land are hot and still; the relentless sun beats
down on green-gray shrubs and dusty rubble. It was on one such day -
on August 6, as the church remembers - that Jesus took his closest
disciples, Peter, James, and John, and led them up the side of "a high
mountain." It is Mt. Tabor that claims this honor.

Perhaps the three were used to being taken aside for private
conferences. But they weren't prepared for what happened next. When they
reached the peak, St. Matthew tells us that Jesus "was transfigured before
them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as
light" (Matthew 17:2). Moses and Elijah appeared, speaking with him. Peter
began to babble the first excited thing that popped into his head. Then
a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice was heard: "This is my
beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." Peter, James,
and John tumbled to the ground in awe. When Jesus came and touched them,
saying, "Have no fear," they looked up to find they were alone.

What can we make of a story like this? What did Peter and John make of it?

It seems, understandably, to have made an indelible impression. In his
second letter, Peter retells the story, preceding it with this assurance:
"We were eyewitnesses of his majesty" (2 Peter 1:16). John begins his
intricately woven first letter with a similar eyewitness claim: "That
which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen
with our own eyes" (John 1:1). John continues, "This is the message we
have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him
is no darkness at all."

God is light. Throughout the Scriptures, God appears repeatedly in
the form of overwhelming light. A cloud covers the mountain top when
Christ's glory is revealed, just as one shook Mt. Sinai with lightning
when Moses spoke with God. When Moses descended the mountain carrying
the tablets of the Law, his face was shining from the presence of God:
"The Israelites could not look on Moses' face, because of its brightness"
(2 Corinthians 3:7). Pillars of cloud and of fire led the Israelites
in the wilderness. St. Paul on the road to Damascus was overwhelmed by
"a light from heaven, brighter than the sun" (Acts 26:13).

But there is something about light that most previous generations would
have known, that doesn't occur to us today. We think of light as something
you get with the flip of a switch. But before a hundred years ago, light
always meant fire. Whether it was the flame of a candle, an oil lamp,
a campfire, or the blazing noonday sun, light was always accompanied
by fire.

And fire, everyone knew, must be respected. That's one of the lessons
learned from earliest childhood. Fire is powerful and dangerous. It
does not compromise. In any confrontation, it is the person who will
be changed by fire, and not the other way round. As Hebrews 12:29 says,
"Our God is a consuming fire."

Yet this consuming fire was something God's people yearned for. In some
mysterious way, light means life. John tells us, "In him was life, and
the life was the light of men" (John 1:4). Jesus says, "I am the Life"
(John 11:25), and also "I am the Light" (John 8:12).

Light is life: we live in light, and couldn't live without it. In some
sense, we live *on* light. It is light-energy that plants consume in
photosynthesis - an everyday miracle as mysterious as life itself. When
we eat plants, or eat the animals that eat plants, we feed at second-hand
on light. Light is converted into life, literally, with every bite we eat.

The fire of God consumes us, and we consume it as well. His light is
life. "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son
of Man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you" (John 6:53). What
could Jesus have meant by this? In recent centuries, Western Christians
have offered competing theories. Some hold that Jesus meant a memorial
meal, a simple commemoration of his sacrifice.

But, in the Greek text of John's Gospel, Jesus makes a literal
interpretation inescapable, by choosing the most offensive terms he
can. He didn't use the ordinary word for "eat" ("phago"), but "trogo,"
to munch and chew as a cow chews its cud. And it wasn't even his body
("soma"), but his flesh ("sarx"). "Chew my flesh" - he couldn't have
made it much more graphic. His audience got the message, and were
appalled. John tells us that "many" of Jesus' disciples abandoned him
because of this "hard saying." When Jesus asks the twelve whether they
too will leave, Peter hardly sounds enthusiastic. But stalwart resignation
speaks: "Lord, to whom else shall we go?"

On the far side of everything -- the Last Supper, the campfire denial,
the Resurrection, and the Pentecost outpouring -- Peter tries in a letter
to make sense of what happened on Mt. Tabor that day. Peter saw God's
glory, and he knows it is for us. He says that God's divine power calls
us "to his own glory." Through his promises we may "become partakers of
the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:3-4).

"Partakers of the divine nature." The life that is in Christ will be
in us. In Western Christianity, we tend to take Scriptures like this
metaphorically. When St. Paul refers to life "in Christ" some 140 times,
we expect he means a life that *looks like* Christ's. We try to imitate
our Lord, and sing of following him and seeking his will. We ask "What
would Jesus do?" We hope to behave ethically and fairly in this life,
and after death take up citizenship in heaven.

But it appears that Peter had learned to anticipate something more
radical and more intimate: true oneness with Christ and personal
transfiguration. We partake of, consume, the light Tabor and the
life of Christ. We receive, not mere intellectual knowledge of God,
but illumination. This participation in "the divine nature" is not a
treat squirreled away for the select few, for mystics or hobbyists of
"spiritual formation," but God's plan for every single human life. "The
true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world" (John
1:9). Participation in this light is not a lofty or esoteric path, but one
of simplicity and childlike humility. It's not won by sudden, swooping
supernatural experiences, but by daily, diligent self-control. Through
prayer, fasting, and honoring others above self, we gradually clear away
everything in us that will not catch fire.

We are made to catch fire. We are like lumps of coal, dusty and inert,
and possess little to be proud of. But we have one talent: we can
burn. You could say that it is our destiny to burn. He made us that way,
because he intended for his blazing light to fill us. When this happens,
"your whole body will be full of light" (Matthew 6:22).

Our bodies, not just our souls. Just as Jesus' body on Mt. Tabor was
radiant with the glory of God, our bodies will "bear the image of the
man of Heaven," St. Paul says (I Corinthians 15:49). This very same
too-familiar body, that embarrasses and disappoints, that is marred
by flaws and flab, will one day be "raised in glory" (1 Corinthians
15:43). As Cyril of Alexandria wrote in the fifth century, "Even
though [the disciples had] heard that our flesh would rise up again,
they did not know how. Now [Christ] was transfigured in his own flesh,
and so gave us the example." And as John, another witness of Mt. Tabor,
writes: "It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when
he appears we shall be like him" (I John 3:2).

It is easy to forget this. C.S. Lewis's literary demon, Screwtape, was
able to get a man's mind off hair-raising spiritual realities just by
showing him a shouting newsboy and a passing city bus. We are grateful
for distractions because, if this is true, we will have to change our
lives. If God's plan is to fill our souls and bodies with his brilliant
life, we must decide whether we will cooperate. If we do, we'll have
to train ourselves to "pray without ceasing" (I Thessalonians 5:17),
gazing constantly on God who dwells in our hearts, "as the eyes of
servants look to the hand of their master" (Psalm 123:2). We'll have to
start remembering that every other human being we encounter, no matter
how exasperating, is a recipient of this same divine invitation; every
person we meet is called to blaze up with glory. The fear and trembling
that seized Peter, James, and John on the mountain will accompany our
every remembrance of God, driving out triviality and self-satisfaction. We
supply the coal, God supplies the fire: "So work out your own salvation
with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you" (Phillipians 2:12).

Where are we going? We're all going up Mt. Tabor. "And we all, with
unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into
his likeness from one degree of glory to another" (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Frederica Mathewes-Green

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