The Transfiguration 11th February 2018 Madingley
2 Kings 2:1-12 2 Cor. 4:3-6 Mark 9:2-9
In my humble opinion – and when did I ever hold back from inflicting that on people? – the Transfiguration of our Lord should be accorded much more importance by the church than it currently does. Yes, it is marked as a festival in August, but that makes it of lower standing than the feasts, such as Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. Yet it is recorded in all 3 of the synoptic Gospels, and John’s gospel, while not mentioning the actual event, has been spoken of as “the Gospel of the Transfiguration”, because the theme of the revelation of the glory of Jesus is central to all that it says. Given that Archbishop Michael Ramsey, when asked which of his books he was most glad to have written, replied, “The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ,” maybe my thoughts are not too heretical.
When preparing for today I went back to two leading exponents on the subject: Ramsey, of course, and Eric Abbott, who was Dean of Westminster in the middle of the last century. However, in doing that I came across a comment which both made me laugh out loud, and also recognized its relevance. Abbott suffered from lameness as a result of a stroke, and he always worried about being able to walk in a straight line down the aisle of the Abbey, especially during televised services. He confided to his doctor that he was always especially nervous of walking up the Abbey aisle with someone like Archbishop Michael Ramsey, who was known for never steering a very straight course! [From sermon preached at his memorial service at Lincoln Cathedral.] This human frailty and imperfection, alongside the towering spiritual nature of both men, could serve as a symbol of what the Transfiguration reveals.
Similarly, the position of today as the Sunday when we hear this reading can be considered from 2 viewpoints. We can see it as being the last Sunday before Lent, when our own human weakness comes under the microscope even more than usual, or it can be seen as the final magisterial comment on the season of Epiphany which we have just completed; that time when we contemplate the manifestation of the glory of God in human form to the whole world.
For the Transfiguration marks a threshold in the Gospel; it has echoes of the Baptism of Jesus through the words of God the Father concerning his Son which are heard on both occasions. It also foreshadows the Passion of Jesus, and especially those agonising hours in the Garden of Gethsemane, where again, accompanied by Peter, James and John, Jesus spends time in deep communion with his Father. As the Baptism of Jesus was the starting point for his public ministry, so the Transfiguration has the same position in relation to the Passion of Jesus.
Here past, present and future are seen as an undivided unity. Two of the pre-eminent figures of the OT, the prophets Moses and Elijah are there, who represent the whole of the old order, the old covenant between God and his people, which now sees the beginning of its fulfilment in the incarnation of Jesus. Their presence declares that the Messianic age has arrived. A short time later in the future, the completion of his work would see the establishment of the new and eternal covenant, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. But now we have a glimpse of the glory of God shining in the face of his Son, that will be fully revealed in the future. At that later time, the glory will be intensified because of the presence of the scars of his Passion which Jesus bears eternally.
Pope Leo the Great, in one of the major contributions to our thinking about the Transfiguration, pointed out that the body of Jesus which was to undergo the Passion would be changed into the glorious body which ascended to heaven where he now reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Here, as probably nowhere else in the Gospels, we see the dawning of our Christian understanding of Jesus as being both fully human, and fully divine. In one body, both aspects of his being are contained.
If the truth be known, our friends in the eastern branches of Christianity have a better appreciation of this than we have. In this country, as a result of the Reformation with its emphasis on the justification and sanctification of human lives, we began to take a strongly moral approach to our belief, and to distrust the more mystical aspects of it.
On the other hand, eastern forms of Christianity are acutely aware that the effect of the Gospel is that we are participating in a new creation. The world has been changed and remade as a result of the resurrection of Jesus, for those who can perceive it, and the Transfiguration opens our eyes to this miracle so that we can see the same old things with new eyes. Jesus’ public ministry revealed to us the knowledge that God is present in our everyday activities. But the Transfiguration takes us beyond ourselves to see God who transcends everything that we can know in the here and now. And we realize that the circumstances of our lives can become a window through which we can see him, especially if we are able to make that shift to seeing things differently.
We are given a hint as to how this can happen at the beginning of Luke’s account of this event, and surely it is understood, if not stated outright, in the other accounts too. Luke tells us that Jesus, “took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.” Luke 9:28 Eric Abbott, who I mentioned at the beginning, calls this event, “The feast of the praying Christ.” In his transfiguration the disciples are made privy to the deep fellowship which lies between the Father and Son. Where they had been conscious before of Jesus going away by himself to pray, and they had been sufficiently intrigued to ask him to teach them to pray, now the experience of seeing with their own eyes the impact of this intensely close relationship, overwhelmed them.
They would carry this experience with them through all the dark days ahead, and clearly it was never forgotten. The second epistle which carries Peter’s name refers to the event as a landmark moment in the development of their faith. “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.” 2 Peter 1:16-18 cf John 1: “We beheld his glory, as of the only son of the Father, full of grace and truth.”
We can see why Ramsey refers to the Transfiguration as, “the gateway to the saving events of the Gospel; the mirror in which the Christian mystery can be seen in unity.” It prevents us from separating out the darkness of the cross from the glory of the risen Christ. They are one united truth, and in our own transfigured moments, when that truth dawns upon us, we are changed for ever.
Michael Ramsey should have the last word: “Confronted as he is with a universe more than ever terrible in the blindness of its processes and the destructiveness of its potentialities, mankind must be led to the Christian faith not as a panacea of progress nor as an otherworldly solution unrelated to history, but as a Gospel of Transfiguration. Such a Gospel both transcends the world and speaks to the immediate here-and-now. He who is transfigured is the Son of Man; and, as he discloses on Mount Hermon another world, he reveals that no part of created things and no moment of created time lies outside the power of the Spirit, who is Lord, to change from glory to glory.”