Collect for Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord
Father in heaven, whose Son Jesus Christ was wonderfully transfigured before chosen witnesses upon the holy mountain, and spoke of the exodus he would accomplish at Jerusalem: give us strength so to hear his voice and bear our cross that in the world to come we may see him as he is; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Daniel 7, Vv 7-10 & 13-14
2 Peter 1, Vv 16-19
St Luke 9, Vv 28-36
Tomorrow the Christian Church celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord. I thought that we might spend a few minutes this morning, albeit in slight anticipation, looking at the event and seeing what it means for us in today’s frenetic world. I acknowledge some thoughts of Abigail Young in this address.
In our studies of Holy Scripture we are often asked to compare and contrast images of God from both Old and New Testaments. We could, for example, say that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath, judgement and vengeance; whereas the God of the New Testament is one of mercy, forgiveness and love. Neither view captures the full truth about God, nor does justice to him. Another of these convenient, but misleading, generalisations is that the Old Testament emphasises the transcendence of God, God’s Otherness and Aboveness, in comparison to the world that he created; while the New Testament emphasizes God’s immanence, his continuing presence among us.
Another testamental difference is seen in scriptural portrayals of God’s glory. In the Old Testament, God revealed his glory to his chosen people many times, and in a number of different ways. We only have to think of his meeting with Moses on Mount Sinai. Let me quote from the thirty-third chapter of the book called Exodus: Moses said, ‘Show me your glory, I pray.’ And he said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, but you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ And the Lord continued, ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft in the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.’ This glory of God was discerned by devout Jews as the Shekinah, the presence of God that dwelt in the cloud above the tabernacle.
In the New Testament, Saint John, in the prologue to his Gospel, describes Jesus, the Word of God, as a light shining in the darkness. Yet, despite this description, the disciples did not normally see in their friend Jesus this glory of God shining out, only the human face of God. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of seeing in Jesus the reflection of God’s brilliance, yet, not even in his resurrected and glorified body was their any evidence of this unique splendour of God. Apart from the Transfiguration, the only other appearance of Christ in glory was that seen by Saint Paul on the road to Damascus. Nowhere else in the New Testament is there any suggestion that repudiates its claim to present an immanent, indwelling God, that is, a God who is humanly present with us.
Saint Luke, who gave us this morning’s account of the Transfiguration, is most fastidious in his timing of this event. He began, ‘Now, about eight days after these sayings…’ We then learned that it was only the small coterie of favoured disciples, Peter, James and John, the three who one commentator describes as the ‘disciples’ executive committee’, who witnessed this remarkable occurrence. We heard that Jesus went up into the mountain to pray. He did not necessarily see prayer as a uniquely private experience, something to be done only in total solitude. There are many instances in the Gospels where Jesus prays, in semi-public, as it were. The eve of crucifixion prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane are a well known instance. As was also the case on that Passiontide evening the accompanying disciples were tired. In our Gospel they were described as, ‘weighed down with sleep’, but, unlike the visit to the Garden, they didn’t actually succumb to the arms of Morpheus. One could ask if they were tired and exhausted from having climbed the mountain. We are not told which mountain, but it was probably Mount Tabor, which stands about 1,850 feet above sea level. Another suggestion to explain their tiredness is that this incident happened at night, perhaps to give it more visual impact.
So, what occurred on the mountain? The three disciples had a visionary experience of Jesus quite unlike anything that they had encountered in their normal, daily life. We were told that his clothes became dazzling white. He was met by two figures, which they identified as Moses and Elijah. Jesus talked to them of his ‘departure.’ This is rather subtle wording on Luke’s part, for in this account Jesus is not simply preparing to depart from upper Galilee for Judea and Jerusalem, but to depart from this world altogether, as a result of his impending passion, death, resurrection, and ascension. Moses and Elijah, two figures from Israel’s heroic past shared, among other attributes, a tradition that they were both believed to have been bodily taken up in some mysterious fashion into the Divine presence at the moment of their deaths. Elijah, if you remember the reading of a few weeks ago, was assumed into heaven in a whirlwind, and, although Deuteronomy quite clearly narrates details of the death of Moses, popular belief also gave him a fate different from that of ordinary mortals. He is also thought to have been corporeally elevated into heaven. For the three disciples to believe that they had seen those two men on the mountain was to associate the event in some way with heaven itself. Indeed, in the tradition of the Old Testament, theophanies, that is, appearances by God to human beings, often took place on mountains, as witness, those associated with both Moses and Elijah. None of the Synoptic authors explains quite how the disciples knew that the two men who met with Jesus were Moses and Elijah. It is generally thought that graven images and likenesses were totally forbidden within Judaism, as demanded by the Second Commandment. So, there would have been nothing with which comparison could be made. Did they hear Jesus greet them, or did they greet him? Were they such well described figures in the Jewish psyche that they would immediately have been recognised? Regretfully, we shall never know. We do know that the disciples were almost dumbstruck – nothing like this had ever happened to them before. Peter summoned up the courage to break the spell, just as Moses and Elijah were leaving. Not really knowing what to say, he offered to build three dwellings or shelters, one for each of them. There was, and is, in the Jewish calendar, at about the same time that we celebrate our Harvest Thanksgiving, a Feast of Tabernacles, also called the Festival of Succoth. For a week, Jews live outdoors in tents (where this is practicable) to remind themselves of their forty years’ sojourn in the wilderness after leaving Egypt. Some commentators believe that the Transfiguration occurred at about this time, in the third week of the Hebrew seventh month of Tishri.
The response to Peter’s suggestion was truly awesome. The mountain was surrounded by a cloud and from within it the voice of God spoke. In words similar to those used at the baptism of Jesus, they heard: ‘This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!’ After this, Jesus appeared as his earthly self again and they left the mountain together. This is indeed a story unlike all others told about Jesus, at least on the surface, and it is not easy to understand what happened or why. But the context within which the gospel is set can be a guide. Like the other evangelists who recalled the Transfiguration, Luke locates it about a week after Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Messiah and shortly before the start of the final journey to Jerusalem. At first, nothing seems more disparate or unrelated than these two events: Peter’s confession and the Transfiguration. In the former episode, Jesus, like a good teacher, challenged the disciples not just to observe who he was but to declare it openly within their company. Peter did indeed affirm that Jesus was the Messiah of God, but Jesus then had to explain very carefully just what kind of Messiah he was: ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’ Despite their hopes of resurrection at the end of time, this was a conversation rooted in the here and now of their lives, in which the righteous often suffer and those who try to teach the will of God are misunderstood. If we also consider what Matthew and Mark, drawing upon their various traditions, wrote about Peter’s confession, then it appears that Jesus was not simply instructing them in the true nature of his Messiahship, but actively correcting Peter’s profound misunderstanding, a misunderstanding that led him to rebuke Jesus when Jesus began to teach about his forthcoming passion and death. This was a disagreement which Luke seems, for some reason, to have smoothed over.
This account of Jesus’ Transfiguration also turns on another of Peter’s hasty misinterpretations. The message from God cut right across his plans to set up a sort of hill-shrine for the three prophets! Instead, the divine voice pointed the three disciples back to what this vision meant, just as Jesus’ correction of Peter earlier pointed him back to the real meaning of Messiahship. But it meant more than that. The voice the disciples heard did not just say, ‘this is my Son, my Chosen.’ It continued, ‘listen to him!’ These three, breath-taking words were addressed by God directly to them! This is what Peter (and, by implication, the other disciples) had not done in the previous week, at Caesarea Philippi, when they seemingly refused to believe that the Messiah would have to suffer and die. This is what Peter, James, and John did not yet understand on the mountain of the Transfiguration, where they had just heard Jesus speak in prayer about his departure: they were still hearing what they wanted to hear, seeing what they wanted to see, a triumphant Christ, a latter-day King David, without the trials and crucifixion.
That important message was not only for them, it was also for us, as individuals, and as members of the Church. The Transfiguration offers us, those of us born too late to have known Jesus in his earthly life, the same link to God as it did the disciples, a link between the man, the so-called ‘Jesus of history’, who we read about in the New Testament, and the risen, ascended, and glorified Lord who we encounter in this Blessed Sacrament. Furthermore, it offers us the same challenge: ‘listen to him’. We must learn to discern his voice, and the truth of his mission and gospel, even about his nature: not just what we want to hear but what God is actually saying to us. At a time when the church celebrates again that transfiguring and transforming event, may God give us the gift of such listening? May we be given grace to follow God’s explicit instruction and ‘listen to him’.
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