They kept awake and saw his glory


Today's Gospel records a remarkable event in the life and ministry of Our Lord. Jesus predicted he would suffer grievously and be put to death, and those who followed him would need to take up their own cross. It's important that we're mindful of this as we consider the Transfiguration, not least in this season of Lent. Out of context it might seem a strange and misplaced story.

Mountains are wonderful places; places where, in many cultures, people have felt closest to God. Mountains are places where the gods were believed by the ancients to have lived, like the Greek gods on Mount Olympus or Hindu gods born in the snow-capped Himalayas. Indeed, it was on Mount Sinai that Moses received the Law from God himself. Mountains give us a sense of perspective, giving the chance to see everything in its place. It would seem that it was to Mount Hermon, which is some 9,400 feet high, that Jesus and his three apostles went but not to the summit because of the time it would have taken and because of the difficult atmosphere, as later climbers have found.

Did the Transfiguration event come at a time of crisis in the religious life of Jesus? Some would say it did, as he recognised the suffering and death predicted would come sooner rather than later. What are we to make of his changed appearance? Among others, the experience of Evelyn Underhill, the Anglican mystic who lived in the early part of the 20th century, has shown that the intense devotions of a saint and mystic are often accompanied by physical transformation and luminous glow, as with Moses coming down from the mountain with the 10 commandments. Indeed, I gather such a glow is also not uncommon for writers, artists, composers and scientists when creative inspiration is upon them.

Perhaps, as St Luke records, the fact that the apostles were sleepy suggests it was night time. Jesus went there to be apart, to pray, to commune with his Father. On the mountain Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah. Moses personifies the Law - the Law is a kind of incarnation of God, and that's why the tablets of stone were honoured and carried around in the Ark. When Moses meets God on the mountain top the glory of God is so brilliant he has to keep his face covered as he returns to the Israelites. Elijah, the great prophet, who was assumed into heaven in a whirlwind, was thought by the Jews to return one day to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. They both converse with Jesus; they, the great Jewish heroes who lived centuries apart, talk with God himself. It would seem that they spoke together of Jesus' destiny to go to Jerusalem, to face his passion and life-giving death. The Transfiguration showed to the 3 specially chosen apostles, Peter, James and John, that Jesus was who he claimed to be. This was confirmed by the Father, speaking from the cloud – the cloud standing for the shechinah, which is nothing less than the glory of Almighty God - that Jesus was the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets. From now on it was clear that faith in Jesus was more important than keeping the Law.

Peter's well intentioned response was, as was so often the case with him, both right and wrong. He wanted to make three tents, one for Jesus, and one each for Moses and Elijah. As it were, he wanted to hold on to the moment of glory. As Luke tells us, 'He didn't know what he was saying.' Peter's good intention can be akin to our own in spiritual moments. In this world we can't hold on to the glory.

When God grants us moments of insight - often they are only fleeting -they are given towards future strengthening. The day on the 'mountain top', whatever it might be for us is to be treasured. When God reveals his truth and presence we must do all we can to receive the moment, to be aware of it, but not to possess it or depend on it. It's not infrequently the case that when a person comes to a real and lively faith in God they are granted moments of closeness to God when prayer seems easy, and they experience spiritual insight and a joy of faith. This may last for a while and then often disappears. This disappearance can be very disconcerting, not least when there comes strong periods of God's apparent absence and life seems dull and troubled. The moments of spiritual closeness are given for encouragement; like the mountain top they are not the plain upon which we are to ordinarily live. Doubtless, they will be experienced, occasionally, once again but we are not to rely upon them. The glory of God is not to be seen simply in Church or spiritual boosts but perceived in the every day, the hum drum, the ordinary where people need our love. If we were to read on from today's Gospel episode we'd see that when Jesus came down from the mountain he was confronted by an angry father distressed about his deeply disturbed son whom the other disciples could not cure. Jesus reveals his glory again but this time in love and compassion.

God the Father in the account of the Transfiguration tells the apostles to listen to Jesus. if we stay awake we shall see his glory. Perhaps it won't happen very often in mountain-top like experiences but much more in the everyday where we see compassion expressed, concern shown. The Transfiguration gives us hope and provides strength, not least in times when we experience the cross, the sufferings and trials of life. As St Paul writes to the persecuted Christians of Rome, ' I consider that the sufferings of this life are far outpassed by the glory which shall be revealed.' Our faith can be used by God to transfigure the sufferings of others, to bring faith in others, and to deepen our own. Furthermore, as one commentator has written, the moment of glory does not exist for its own sake; it exists to clothe the common things with a radiancy they never had before.

Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem and we, likewise, are called to take up our cross and follow in his steps, confident that through God's mercy and love we shall come to the glory of the resurrection prefigured in the Transfiguration.