The Transfiguration

Sermon Sunday 23 February 2020

Lessons Exodus 24: 12 – 18 St Matthew 17: 1 – 9

Prayer of Illumination

Bless this moment of stillness, peace and quiet meditation. May we encounter You through mystic Scripture and our hearts’ inner reflection. Amen.

‘In their presence he was transfigured; his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became a brilliant white.’ The account of the Transfiguration has to be one of the defining moments of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Together with Peter, James and John, Jesus went up a high mountain. In a life-changing, life-enhancing mystical encounter, the disciples saw Moses and Elijah appear alongside Jesus. Suddenly, ‘a bright cloud cast its shadow over them’. From the cloud, the disciples heard a voice, ‘This is my beloved son, in whom I take delight; listen to him’. In terror, the disciples fell on their faces. Finally, Jesus told them to stand up. When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

There is so much in this faith narrative for us to consider. Perhaps the first and most obvious revelation is that Moses and Elijah stand with Jesus. The greatest of Israel’s prophets are alive and already raised from the dead. In the wider Jewish tradition, the resurrection or rising of Jesus from the dead is not the first such occurrence, and neither is it unique. Besides Moses and Elijah, Enoch is also raised to new life. In the Christian tradition, in our sacred text, Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah who were alive in God.

In the closing moments of the story, in our pew Bible, the Revised English Bible, we hear Jesus say to the disciples, ‘Stand up; do not be afraid.’ However, the translation is bettered rendered, ‘Rise’ or ‘Arise’. With spiritual imagination, this suggests resurrection. The Bible is not history but spiritual writing. St Gregory said, ‘The Word of God is the food of the soul’. Spiritually, the disciples rise from darkness to new life; their eyes having been covered or closed; they are born again. Read spiritually, the disciples encountered Jesus in the darkness of their own soul: sometimes, it is in the darkest moments of human life that the silent call of Jesus is heard.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the transfiguration or metamorphosis, happens to us as we meditate on the text deeply: the change, the new insight, happens in us. Whether through painted icon or the word-icon of Scripture, Transfiguration is an inward encounter for us. As we gaze on the radiant Christ, our experience of Jesus becomes deeper, more profound and evolves into an intimate union. The Risen Christ lives in us; we are the dwelling-place, the tabernacle, the tent of the LORD’s Presence.

One of the most important spiritual writings after the Bible is The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. It was one of the first books I read on my personal journey as a teenager and one I return to frequently. In a passage entitled, How Christ Speaks Inwardly to the Soul, the priest and monk, Thomas à Kempis wrote:

‘I will hear what the Lord God speaks within me.’
Blessed is the soul that hears the Lord speaking within
it, and receives comfort from His Word. Blessed are
the ears that hear the still, small voice of God, and
disregard the whispers of the world. Blessed are the
ears that listen to Truth teaching inwardly, and not
to the voices of the world. Blessed are the eyes
that are closed to outward things, but as open to
inward things. Blessed are those who enter deeply
into inner things, and daily prepare themselves to
receive the secrets of heaven.

What I take from à Kempis is that God is encountered in the soul, in the intuitions of the soul, in our appreciation of nature’s beauty, in the tenderness of friendships, and in Scripture heard with the ear of the heart. The Transfiguration is Christ alive in us, rising in us, and born in us. And often in the most subtle of ways.

In our Gospel lesson, I wonder if you noticed the point at which the disciples fell to the ground and, in fear, covered their faces. Peter, James and John saw the face and clothes of Jesus shine with brilliant light. In that vivid and dramatic vision, they saw the two towering prophets of Israel appear before them. Still they stood. With excitement Peter asked, ‘Would you like me to make three shelters here?’ Three tabernacles, booths or tents? It was the cloud that brought them to their knees; the cloud that caused them to avert their gaze. We are told that the bright cloud cast its shadow over them.

This is the poetry of religion at its very best: the bright cloud cast its shadow. It is in the paradox of light and darkness that the presence of God is hidden. With the entire mountain top ablaze with light, there is darkness cast by the cloud’s shadow and the impenetrable darkness behind the cloud.

God is always mystery, always beyond our comprehension and, ultimately, always beyond our gaze. The Welsh poet and priest, the late R S Thomas, said that God is a Being who is not a being at all. In worship as part of the liturgy, the fourteen century mystic, Meister Eckhart, would say to his congregation, ‘God is light’. They replied, ‘God is not light’. The fourth century theologian, St Augustine, said, ‘If you understand it, it is not God’. In other words, the giants of the faith repeat again and again each in their different ways that God is hidden, elusive, mystery, beyond comprehension; God is always in the darkness. On the Mount of Transfiguration, the disciples fell to their knees in the presence of Divine Darkness.

Briefly, what would a first century Jew or Jewish Christian hear in the Transfiguration story? Jesus climbed the mount with three disciples: Peter, James and John. When Moses climbed Mount Sinai, he took with him three disciples: Aaron, Nadab and Abihu. On the mountain top Moses encountered God in the cloud, a sign of God’s Presence. In our lesson today from the Old Testament, Moses drew near to the cloud with Joshua. ‘Joshua’ is the Hebrew for ‘Jesus’. The three shelters which Peter offered to erect suggest the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles or Booths; a feast which recalls that God journeyed with the Hebrew people through forty years in the wilderness; in the wilderness, God’s abode was in a tabernacle, booth or tent. The story of the Transfiguration is in part a story of God dwelling with the Christian community, in the Christian community, in our tents or buildings and in our hearts.

There is so much richness in this fertile text but crucially it is not an event of the past; we are to encounter Christ, the Risen Christ, now. In reflection, study and meditation, we too may stand on the mountain top, gaze into the mystical vision for ourselves and, in the soul, feel the Presence of the Sacred. This is the power of the Bible.

The shining light of Christ changes us, transfigures us and all our thinking, if we let it in. Some years ago, I attended a concert in Portobello at which two Christian song-writers were performing. One of them, Rob Halligan, sang his song, Streets of This Town. The recurring line of the chorus is ‘Our hope is in You.’ Rob wrote this song in memory of his father, who was killed in the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. Singing of Christ, Rob sang, ‘Our hope is in You.’ Hope is not a false optimism: it is a conviction that, come what may, in all the twists and turns and hardships of this life, God remains faithful to us. In the midst of all our darkness, in the darkness of the world, the light of the Divine Presence, the Luminous Darkness, is there. The story of the Transfiguration of Jesus is a word-icon to be carried around within us, that we may glimpse the ‘eternal seeping through the physical, the everlasting glory dipping into time’. Amen