By Jan Shannon
I recently read Luke 9:28-43 (NRS Version) and this article was written as a reflection of that reading.
Synonyms include: astonishing, astounding, surprising, stunning, staggering, shocking, startling, stupefying, breathtaking. But that’s not how I use it. I often use it for much more ordinary things. Just in the past few days, I’ve use the word amazing to describe my breakfast, a sunset, and my wife (well, OK, she IS amazing).
If I wanted to more properly express my meaning on each of those items, I would have said, my breakfast was tasty, the sunset was colorful and my wife, well, she’s kind, compassionate, fun-loving and beautiful. The reason “amazing” doesn’t properly describe those events is because they do not invoke great surprise or wonder. My breakfast of bacon and eggs, prepared by my wonderful wife, was tasty, but I often have bacon and eggs, and tasty as they are, I am not astonished by them. The sunset was gorgeous, but the sun goes down every day, so, though the colors might be called indescribable, they were not actually breathtaking. We often use superlative words to describe everyday events, so what words are left to describe the truly amazing?
“While He was praying” the above linked text says, “the appearance of His face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” (Like a flash of lightening or like a star) —Jesus shone like a “flash of lightening” — his heavenly nature showing through the human. Verses 30-31 say, “Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory”— this use of the word glory differs from the second use. “ And Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep … but awaked … they saw His glory, and the two men standing with him.” The difference lies in the noun tense in Greek (you all came here to learn Greek, right?). But seriously, there’s a difference. In the first use, in verse 31, the New Revised Standard Version of the text says, “the men appeared in glory,” but to truly catch the correct meaning from the Greek, you would have to say it like this, “two men that stood with him: Moses and Elias, and the glory in which they appeared.” It was not the two men who had the glory; there was glory, and the two men appeared in it. The glory is distinctly separate from the men. However, in the second use, in verse 32, it says that Peter and John and James, “saw His glory,” and in this instance, the glory belongs to Jesus. It is his glory.
Now, I don’t want to take anything from Moses and Elijah, I’m sure they were nice guys. Moses did the whole, “Let my people go” thing and freed the children of Israel from oppression and slavery in Egypt (which I’m sure they appreciated), and Elijah was the great prophet who called down fire from heaven and the fire was SO HOT it lit even soaking wet logs (an excellent skill to have on a soggy night when you’re camping), but let’s be honest; the power and the glory that they were given, was just that: given—it was not theirs; it was given to them by God. So, after seeing Jesus transfigured in this way, Peter has this great idea. He asks Jesus, whom he calls “Master” —not Teacher, but Boss—if he and James and John can build three “dwellings” —three huts—for Moses and Elijah and Jesus to stay in, because, it says, Peter did not know what Jesus said. Whatever Jesus, Moses and Elijah had been discussing, Peter, in his amazement, had missed it. And, to emphasize how shrouded in ignorance Peter is, a cloud “shaded them,” the Greek says, and “fear enveloped them.” Ignorance and fear are what keep Peter, and us I would say, from hearing what Jesus says, or at least, from understanding it fully.
Then, from the cloud, or as I hear it, “While they were in the midst of their darkness” the voice of God said, “this is my Son, my Chosen; listen to Him!” A metaphor, perhaps, for the darkness that veils all our eyes, and prevents us from seeing the truth, and how God doesn’t leave us in the darkness, but comes to us right where we are to bring us the truth. The text goes on to tell us, “And they kept silent,” but in the Greek there’s a slightly different feel to that statement. “They kept silent” sounds like it was their idea, but the feeling in the Greek is more like, “they were silenced,” or even stronger, “they were shut up.”
The next section of this text narrates a scene in which the disciples are unable to heal a young boy. The disciples “had not the power” to cast out the spirit from the boy, so the father begs Jesus to heal his son. Jesus’ reaction is one of … what? Disappointment? Frustration? Anguish over our blindness? Jesus’ answer to the father is poignant; “how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” But again our English translations fail to give us the full significance of this phrase. Jesus says he is “holding myself for you,” or “making myself put up with you.” Jesus comes to us willingly and stays with us on his own terms. No one makes him do it; He does it of his own accord. Jesus, in his glory, overcomes evil, promotes healing, and brings wholeness to the community. Such is the power of his glory.
“And all were astonished at the greatness of God.” The English word ‘greatness’ comes from the Greek word—megaleiotēs. Other English translations render it as majesty or superbness, splendor, glory, magnificence, mighty power. In the Greek, the way I learned it, it’s not merely ‘glory’ – there’s a sense of compounding the emphasis of the word. We probably all recognize the root word MEGA, meaning big, but in this word, megaleiotēs, it’s the biggest of the big. Or the big-ish-ness. It’s big-est-ness. Am I just being silly? Maybe. To properly understand the glory of God, we might have to use words that don’t exist, because our minds can’t grasp the depth of the greatness of the glory of God anyway.
“And all were astonished at the great greatness of God.” The majestic majesty; the magnificent magnificence. The amazing amazingness. Jesus was transfigured—before their eyes they saw him in all his glory. For a few seconds or a few minutes, a few humans got to see him “in his glory.” And they were amazed… But why? If we believe that Jesus is God, if we believe in his divinity, then why are we amazed at His glory? Jesus came from glory, far outside our understanding, far outside our imagination, and once in a while we get a glimpse of his glory—at His baptism, in his power to heal, his ability to calm wind and sea. Here, at his transfiguration, and later…they will see him resurrected. This is the power and the glory of God revealed in human flesh—Jesus Christ—Emmanuel—God with us.
What’s amazing to me isn’t these glimpses of his divine nature, what’s amazing isn’t Jesus’ revealed transcendence, what’s amazing is his coming to Earth. Jesus’ self-limiting of that divine nature in order to live fully as a human, THAT is truly amazing.
Jan Shannon is a full-time seminary student at Iliff School of Theology, a wife, mom, granny, and gay Christian.