In a predominantly rationalist and scientific age, some Christians of a more liberal and progressive stance find stories involving the inexplicable, like Jesus’s Transfiguration, which we’ve just read – or, indeed, the miracles – rather awkward. The temptation often is to ask, ‘Did it really happen?’ I’ve sometimes asked that myself, even though on one level it is futile, because how could we ever know? But in any case I have come to wonder if it is the right question. Nowadays, we normally try to distinguish objective reporting from mere story-telling, but this account of the Transfiguration obviously comes from a different age and a different culture. Precision in reporting back then was secondary to the intended message, which may explain why the Gospel writers sometimes contradict each other in reporting the same events. What, then, might this mysterious Transfiguration narrative be about?
Well, the Gospels present it as an experience of personal transformation for Jesus, a moment of enlightenment. The voice from the cloud was symbolic of the way that Jewish tradition said Moses met God. That both Moses, Israel’s supreme law-giver, and Elijah, Israel’s supreme prophet, should be present may illustrate the Gospel writer’s intention to make it clear that Jesus had the affirmation of both Jewish law and prophecy.
The contemporary poet Malcolm Guite has a lovely take on the Transfiguration. He describes a walk during which he experienced a glimpse of what he calls ‘translucence’ in nature – just the sort of thing the Romantic poets so often write about – Coleridge, say, or Wordsworth. Perhaps you, too, have had a similar experience, where you are aware of something extraordinarily beautiful and moving, even if just for a moment, before you come back to everyday reality. Guite relates his glimpse to the more extensive visionon the Mount of Transfiguration. He links it with the story of Moses and the burning bush. Both stories disclose that the divine presence does not destroy what it meets; rather, it transfigures it – changes it, in other words. The bush is not consumed by the flames, but stays as true and rooted in earth as ever, though now resplendent with heaven. And Moses, who pays the bush new attention, takes off his shoes as he recognises he is treading on holy ground. Moses doesn’t stop being grounded, and nor does he fail to see the common bush in front of his eyes – but he does now realise that, actually, nothing is common. The divine presence is there to be encountered, even in the ordinary stuff of life. We don’t often stop long enough to think about it, but we do, indeed, tread holy ground. Similarly, Jesus’s divine nature does not do away with the ordinary body that he shares with us. But on that mountain the veil is lifted and in the dazzling white we see what another poet, George Herbert, calls ‘heaven in ordinary’.
Perhaps the moment of the burning bush and the moment of Transfiguration are one and the same. In the first, God promises Moses, ‘I will come down’. In the other, that is fulfilled, and Moses is there to see the Transfiguration happen. As Malcolm Guite puts it in his own poem, ‘For that one moment in and out of time/On that mountain where all moments meet…..’ Elizabeth Barrett Browning is another poet who captures the moment, ‘Earth’s crammed with heaven/And every common bush afire with God/But only he who sees, takes off his shoes’. This is such a corrective to the sort of religion that arrogantly assumes it has God all summed up, or the kind that asserts ‘Jesus is my mate’. The Transfiguration of Jesus takes us on to holy ground, and the cloud symbolises the mystery of the divine.
But ……we cannot forget that this was not mere poetry for Jesus. Yes, the Gospels present it as an experience of personal transformation and enlightenment for him, but not in merely esoteric terms. From this point on, Jesus seems clearer in his mind that he must set his face towards Jerusalem, despite the fact that his vision of what he understood God’s kingdom to be about would inevitably lead to confrontation with both political and religious authority. The disciples have a different response to this Transfiguration, it seems. Peter, we read, thought this experience demanded a religious response. He wanted to build symbolic tabernacles, or tents, in an attempt to preserve/bottle this transforming moment. Throughout Christian history, it has been tempting to seek to honour Jesus with magnificent buildings, statues and artwork, to contain the revelatory moment, rather than allow it to result in a transformed life – though buildings that are part of our communities, yet also set apart, do, of course, help to foster that sense of holiness and the holy ground of divine encounter.
The holy ground of the mountain top may encourage us to a fresh vision, but, according to Luke’s account, Jesus, the very next day, led his disciples down from the mountain of mystery back to the reality of everyday life. That is where the vision must be worked out. The mountain top is a wonderful place to experience something of the mystery and the holiness we call God, and to gain a sense of perspective, but it seems it is not the place to stay. The key thing the Christian gospel urges us towards is transformation – in our lives, our community, our church, our country and our world, here and now. It was the writer C.S. Lewis who pointed out that while heaven may be beckoning, you still have Monday morning to get through….
The last word on the mountain of Transfiguration goes to God, who says, ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him!’ We are urged to catch the vision; to listen to the beloved Son, Jesus; to see in what ways our lives and the world we inhabit can be transformed by his life. That implies taking a penetrating look at ourselves, our motivation, attitudes, actions and priorities, because I reckon the God we encounter in Jesus is probably more interested in what we have the potential to become rather than beating ourselves up about what we have got wrong in the past or the present, which may have hindered our chance of transformation. Luke implies that transfiguration is not just for Jesus; it is the destiny of his followers as well. It is no coincidence we read this story just before Lent begins. Too often, I fear, Lent has been used to induce guilt and make us feel bad about ourselves. But this moment of transfiguration proves that the divine presence does not annihilate what it meets, but rather transfigures, transforms and fulfils it.
And on that, one final thought. In the midst of the dereliction of Good Friday, imagine Jesus’s disciples recalling that moment of dazzling light. On that dreadful Friday, when daylight turned to night, it seemed that darkness had won out. But only seemed, for as the poet Edwin Muir put it in his own poem on the Transfiguration, Nor can this blackened sky, this darkened scar/Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are. The Christian hope is thatEaster morning will eventually assert the poet is right. But Easter is still a long way off. Until then, I wish you a meaningful Lent.