Thought for the week - 6 August
The Transfiguration is a mystery wrapped in light, and the light has sometimes made it hard to understand, hard to grasp, like chasing a rainbow, or maybe it is just so dazzling that we simply can’t see it clearly. The Eastern churches use the Transfiguration as a central artistic motif in a way that we simply do not, and it is no less luminous for that. Maybe it’s so different, so much a departure from the usual events chronicled by the evangelists before the entry into Jerusalem that we find it hard to understand – it seems to have more in common with post resurrection life than pre resurrection life. This is because, I think, the other Gospel events before the resurrection, even the miracles and signs, are earthy, fleshy stories concerning people – sick people, hungry people, questioning people – they are healed and liberated but this one, however, concerns Jesus himself and has the atmosphere of the otherworldly surrounding it.
The locus, the place of the Transfiguration is important, as is the timing of the event. We are led up a high mountain to witness the veil between earth and heaven being opened for us – just for a few seconds, just long enough to glimpse the glory which we anticipate at every mass, which we yearn for and seek in our prayers and meditation. It happens in the context of Jesus preparing His disciples for His death, when He knows what awaits Him later in Jerusalem. He’s asked His disciples who other people say he is, and then asked them directly why they say He is – to which peter replies “The Messiah of God.” Matthew tells of Jesus responding, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” He makes a revelation of His divine nature to Peter through faith and eight days later, he takes Peter and His two other closest friends to the mountain. It was not a surprising excursion; Jesus made it a habit of going away in order to pray, to listen to his Father. The three disciples must wonder at times how it is that they get so worn out from the constant walking and the crowds pressing upon them; but the demands of all the needy people on their master, who seems never to stop, having nowhere to lay his head, must worry them. “How does he keep going?” they are probably asking themselves.
On reaching the top of the mountain, that tiredness must have vanished very quickly – not the usual thing when you’ve just walked up a mountain. They see this man they have so many questions for and questions about but dare not ask, suddenly shining in light and glory, and they realise that He is showing them His response to Peter’s statement about who they say He is, and then they realise that there are two other men there as well – and that is certainly interesting in every possible way. I sometimes wonder why they thought it was Moses and Elijah? Certainly they had never met them, certainly they had never seen a picture of them because there were no paintings or sculptures of these two majestic figures in existence. Maybe Jesus calls them by name, but we do not know. It does not matter, what matters is what they were saying to each other and this glimpse of heaven, this rending of the veil showing the glory of the real world beyond our human comprehension, shows what we assume to be these two figures representing the Law and the Prophets encouraging Jesus to face what is to come – accepting that the New Covenant is to be made in His blood and sharing, momentarily, in the memory of the Home that must have seemed to Jesus to be so far away. It’s a gift, a package from home, a memory of where He belongs and an encouragement to begin the long, painful journey back home to His Father.
And then there is another presence among them which reveals itself only through speech – His Father recognises the Son and makes Him known to the whole of creation by saying “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him’’ – and the disciples fall on their faces and Peter begins to lose his nerve and to try and keep this picture of heaven together forever, but he has no power over it, no control as we have none over God – it goes, and there is just the four of them and a memory of home for Jesus, and an image of what now becomes home for the three disciples. It’s utterly beautiful, and it shows us our home as well. And to get there, they set off for Jerusalem to witness the terrible events that will unfold there. They walk off on a long, long journey home.
What was awaiting Jesus was a horror beyond words – not just on his physical body, but in the terrible abandonment he felt on the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is the reason that the transfiguration seems so unusual, because it was not primarily shown for the disciples, or for a leper, or for a blind man, or for anyone else – it was done for Jesus Himself, and was a gift from the Father, a letter from Home, a reminder of what he was going back to, a moment of family love which transcends all we ever knew of love so far. There are times of fear and sadness in our lives, times that we seem a long way from home, so cling to the transfiguration, cling to the light, because this revelation is a revelation not of what is to come, but of what already is. And it’s our home as well.