7th Feb 2016: The Transfiguration
It’s often tempting, when thinking about the Transfiguration to talk about ‘mountain top’ experiences with God and hope that we will all get to experience God in a dramatic thunder and lightning way and regularly. Some Christians spend their whole time wishing for a dramatic experience of God and then wonder why they’re disappointed.
But, let’s be honest, dramatic encounters with God are rare – even for great people like Peter. These flashes of God’s glory do not happen very often, and there is many a faithful believer who has never had that experience.
So I don’t think the story of the transfiguration is there to tell us we can all have a mountain top experience of God. I think it’s there for a much more important reason: to reveal to us who Jesus really is.
It feels like Jesus here lets Peter, James and John peer behind the curtain to see who he really is. So let’s have a peer behind the curtain ourselves.
Jesus takes just Peter, James and John to pray with him. It must have been quite a climb because they are heavy with sleep when they get to the top.
Can you think of another occasion where Jesus takes Peter, James and John to pray with him and they fall asleep? It made me straight away think of the garden of Gethsemane. I think this shows something of the disciples’ inability to really comprehend who Jesus is.
But on the mountain top, the divinity of Christ is revealed to them. They are woken up by the flashing light – the word used to describe Jesus’ dazzling appearance is the same as that used to describe lightning. The disciples are woken out of their ignorance, their sleeping, to see the light of Christ.
In the garden of Gethsemane, the humanity of Christ is fully revealed to them. They are woken up by Jesus to see him going to his death. The fact that they are asleep on both occasions speaks to me of the difficulty of really comprehending who Jesus is, who God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is – the deep Trinitarian mystery at the heart of our faith.
The branch of the church which really understands something about mystery are the Orthodox – Russian and Greek. They keep a screen in front of the altar- the idea is that what happens behind the screen is a mystery. But at certain times the screen, which is called an iconostasis, is opened up for people to see through.
This only happens at certain times such as Easter week. And this too expresses something important: it tells us how we, as Christians, only see rare glimpses of God. Indeed if we were really to see God in all his glory we would be perplexed and terrified, just as Peter, James and John were. I’m not sure the experience they had was altogether comfortable!
So Peter, James and John are woken up from their sleep by this lightning flashing and somehow discern that Jesus is speaking to the two great figures of Judaism – Moses and Elijah. These were men who were long-dead.
Peter decides he needs to do something. Don’t you just love Peter? I think if he were around today, he’d have tried to take a photograph – I know I would have! His, rather strange, response, is to want to create tents for Jesus, Elijah and Moses. All the text tells us is that ‘he didn’t know what he was saying’. Perhaps he was trying to preserve what he could see – in the way we might take a photo now. Perhaps he was trying to be religious, showing how he wanted to worship.
What is interesting is that as soon as he suggests making these tents the cloud descends with the voice of God. And the vision is over.
Jesus is revealed as the very image of God, the firstborn over all creation – he is not portrayed as equal to Moses and Elijah – he is a visual representation of what Jesus himself said: ‘do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them’ – Mt 5:17.
Peter, James and John are given a revelation of who Jesus really is. And so too, we, just before the sometimes difficult season of Lent, are given a glimpse of who Jesus really is: resurrected, ascended, glorified. We must keep this in our minds as we journey towards Easter.
Have you ever heard of a prayer labyrinth? I got the opportunity to walk one once. A prayer labyrinth is a circular path which you walk on slowly and contemplatively. The path winds into a central space and back out again.
These labyrinths appeared in medieval times – they were created so that Christians who couldn’t afford to go on a full pilgrimage to a foreign land could go on a ‘mini’ pilgrimage a bit closer to home.
Walking the path for the first time it felt as if the path represented my life with God. When I started the prayer labyrinth, for the entire first half I was desperate to solve the labyrinth, to get to the middle. I spent most of the first part of the walk thinking about what would happen when I got there.
But once I did get to the middle, it didn’t feel all that different. I felt God saying to me ‘did you not think I was already with you?’
I realised that the presence of God was in the whole of my journey of life. It was as if the presence of God was like a river running through that path – perhaps deeper in the middle but the water a soothing presence throughout.
As I left the middle of the labyrinth to wind my way back to the beginning I had a whole new perspective. I realised that, although there are times when we feel particularly close to God – just like Peter, James and John experienced on the mountain – he is actually with us all the time.
So be encouraged as we go into Lent, the resurrected Christ is with us throughout our journey of life, whether we are in darkness, or whether we are on the mountain top, he journeys with us and is the only one we should listen to.