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.
The Transfiguration Of Christ
Theophanes the Greek,
late 14th century

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 mountaintop 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 secondhand 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?"