The story of the Transfiguration occurs four times in the New Testament. Each of the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – have their own version, though it is likely that Matthew and Luke based their stories off of Mark’s original. It also shows up in the Second Letter of Peter, one of only a handful of references to the ministry of Jesus in the letters. On Sunday, we’ll hear Luke’s account, and there is plenty to be gleaned from what occurs in which version of the story, but what has really struck me today is that there seems to be a key detail missing in three out of the four versions of the Transfiguration.
One of the surest signs in Scripture that one is having a true theophanic experience are the words “Do not be afraid” or “have no fear.” We hear it again and again from the lips of angels, from the resurrected Jesus, and even the Lord God Almighty. It is the first word of comfort to those who are, understandably, afraid of what they are seeing before their very eyes. It seems only reasonable, then, that somewhere in a scene in which Jesus’ clothes are described as a flash of lightening, we might hear someone offer these words of comfort to the terrified Peter, James, and John. Yet, Luke, Mark, and 2 Peter are all silent.
Matthew’s Gospel includes it, but only after the whole scene has ended. Peter, James, and John, having all but fainted with fear, are met by Jesus, now all alone, who touches them and tells them to “be resurrected” and “have no fear.” I can’t help but wonder, given that only eight days ago (in Luke), Jesus had told them about his death and called on them to lose their lives for his sake, why this particular phrase is missing.
Part of it, I supposed, is the reality that fear is an appropriate reaction to what they are seeing and experiencing. In the thought of ancient Israel, to encounter God was to die, and not only were they seeing Jesus brought to glory right before their very eyes and Elijah and Moses standing alongside him, but the cloud of God’s presence was right there, looming right above them. If they weren’t afraid, there was something wrong with them. But to what end? What purpose does their fear serve? Is it, quaking in your boots fear and trembling? Or, as is more likely, is it the holy awe that is often associate with the fear of the Lord?
Not a lot of answers today as my mind runs in 30 different directions, but I know this, there must be something to that fear. Some reason that these words aren’t there. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the Proverbs tell us, and maybe that’s the gift the disciples received on that holy mountain: the beginning of wisdom.