Thought for the week - 7 August
The story of the Transfiguration, the feast we celebrated yesterday, has always fascinated me. The story is located almost exactly at the mid-point of Mark’s Gospel. It’s a significant turning point. Until now Jesus has been teaching and healing. Now he will begin his journey to Jerusalem, where he will die. Six days before, at Caesarea Philippi, Peter had declared that Jesus was the Messiah, but had misunderstood the nature of that Messiahship. Jesus tells his disciples that he must suffer and die – the way of this messiah is the way of cross.
But, in a sense, this story of Transfiguration points beyond the death to the future glorification. In the verse immediately preceding the Transfiguration story, after Jesus has spoken of his suffering and death he says: ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’ And in a sense this is what the three disciples have caught a glimpse of on the mount of Transfiguration – the glory of the kingdom. But they don’t understand. And their blindness is underlined by the fact the story is preceded and followed by the healing of a blind man.
The story is rich in allusion and symbolism. The story itself has a lot in common with story of Moses on Mount Sinai. Moses is accompanied by three men; a cloud covers the mountain and God speaks from the cloud. Moses catches a glimpse of God’s glory and his face becomes dazzling bright. Coming down from the mountain he encounters his faithless disciples. The location, on a high mountain, is theologically significant, for high mountains are places where God is encountered.
On the mountain Jesus is physically transfigured, or transformed. His clothing becomes dazzling white like the figure of the Ancient of Days in the Book of Daniel. This glimpse of Christ’s glory speaks more than any words. Yes, Jesus will suffer and will die, and so will his followers, but the final destination is that glory of which they have had but a glimpse. But the disciples do not understand what they have glimpsed.
Peter, who in his confession, thinks that he has recognized the Messiah still does not grasp what is going on. He doesn’t know what to say, he doesn’t know what to do; but he has to say and do something – that’s his nature! So he says: “‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” I am not surprised they were terrified. Perhaps we should be terrified in the presence of God’s glory. In the Old Testament no one can look at the face of God and live. But we can, for as last week’s readings told us “Christ is the image of the unseen God.”
However, they can’t stay on the mountain. Peter should have known that. It is good to be here in the presence of God’s glory. But that final glory for Jesus and for the disciples comes by way of suffering and death.
Peter wants the experience on the mountain to last for ever. But it can’t, not yet anyway. And it is as if the wish for a personal and selfish spiritual experience destroys the vision. “Then a cloud overshadowed them.”
This is not just any old cloud. Throughout the Bible a cloud symbolizes the presence of God. From the cloud God speaks, just as he spoke to Moses on Sinai. “‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’” Listen to him!
The Law and the prophets as symbolized by the presence of Moses and Elijah may be of great importance. But now they are in the presence of something far greater: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’”
In the world in which we live there are so many voices crying out to be listened to: politicians, advertisers, celebrities, religious leaders, newspapers. We are promised health, wealth, happiness, success, and goodness knows what. But the voice from the cloud says: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Listen to him.
And we know that if we listen to him we are listening to the voice of God himself.
“Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.” Only Jesus remains because only Jesus is needed.
“As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”
Perhaps best not to tell, because they still have not fully grasped what is going on. But they will one day when the Son of Man rises from the dead.
We in this our Eucharist have our own Mount of Transfiguration as the risen, ascended and glorified Christ comes to meet us in this sacrament of Holy Communion for,
“This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”