Sometimes we have something happen to us or we witness an event that is deeply profound or even life-changing. We might stand in awe of such an event, perhaps a joyful awe or a heartbreaking awe. The event just cries out to be shared with others. Such events are very difficult to share. Our ability to convey the event to someone who has not shared the actual experience is difficult, often beyond our ability to describe. We might lack the capacity to describe what we have experienced. Or perhaps there are just no adequate words in our language or in any other language.
No verbal account of natural childbirth would make it clear to a man what it means to give birth. A father might be there right beside his wife, but he can only have a vague vicarious understanding of pregnancy and childbirth. Likewise, it would probably be very difficult to describe combat. Even with thousands of war movies, most utterly fail to describe the actual experience of war. Social decorum and limited technology keep most war films from describing the truth about war. But even when a director chooses to portray the horrors of war and if technology permits, the movie will still fall short. For example, while ‘Saving Private Ryan’ showed the D-Day landings in 1944 more realistically than ever before, it still falls short of the true horrors of what happened on those beaches.
All of these things such as childbirth and war, dramatic as they are, are all worldly experiences that defy accurate description. So imagine how Peter, James, and John would have struggled to describe the Transfiguration. This was no worldly event. Only three human beings have seen Jesus in all of His glory. Only three men have seen Moses and Elijah centuries after their deaths. To make things more difficult, Peter, James, and John were all simple men. None of them were highly educated, none of them had the gift of poetic expression, and none of them had an artist’s eye. They were ordinary fishermen. So Mark the evangelist could only say that Jesus was transfigured and that His clothes were an unearthly bright shade of white. No doubt the experience would be beyond even the ability of the best Hollywood special effects artists to duplicate.
In our own lives, when we try to explain profound events and our explanation is clearly not working, when it is clearly not impressing the ones with whom we are trying to share the experience, we have to say or they think ‘you had to be there.’ In a certain way, Peter is saying this before the Transfiguration is even over. He says “Rabbi, it is good that we are here!” (Mk 9:5) and then offers to build tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Being there on the mountaintop is just too good a thing not to prolong. Peter wants this vision to last indefinitely and he may even have wanted to go back down the mountain to bring the other disciples back to see this wondrous spectacle. The Transfiguration is too good a thing not to prolong and too good a thing not to share with others.
Peter did not want to have to say to the rest of the Apostles ‘You had to be there.’ We know that he wanted to share the experience with the others because Jesus “charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (Mk 9:9). So Peter, James, and John not only were unable to describe what they had seen and they were also not allowed to share this experience. But what about the experience did they want to share with others? Was it the transfigured Jesus? Or was it seeing Moses and Elijah? The words of God the Father from the cloud speak volumes in this regard: Peter, James, and John are so caught up in seeing the heavenly vision that the Father has to correct and rebuke them saying “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him” (Mk 9:7).
This rebuke applies to us. Many people want the heavenly, glorified Jesus but do not want to deal with the less glorious things such as Jesus’ ordinary life, His teachings, His suffering, and His agonizing death. In other words, they want Easter without the events the lead up to the Resurrection. Peter, James, and John needed to see the Transfiguration so that they would not lose hope. We need to taste the life of Jesus, listen attentively to Jesus’ teachings, and share in His sufferings so that we do not fall for false hopes. We can’t just be virtual or vicarious disciples nor can we simply ditch our own crosses. We have to be there, we have to live it.