A sermon preached by the Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury on Tuesday 6 August
“They…were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem”.
Luke’s is the only Gospel which allows the reader to eavesdrop on the mountain-top conversation. Mark and Matthew both give an account of the Transfiguration, and Peter refers to it in his second Epistle, as we have heard. But only Luke discloses what Jesus discusses with Moses and Elijah. This disclosure shapes his account and cannot but shape our reading of his account.
The immediate Biblical context is relevant. Shortly before the Transfiguration Jesus has told his disciples for the first time that he is to suffer and to die. Shortly after the Transfiguration Luke tells us that Jesus sets his face to journey to Jerusalem. And on the mountain-top that journey and that suffering are the subject of the exchange: the journey of which the reader has been appraised, and the suffering to which that journey will lead.
Two words stand out in the short phrase with which I began. Both are picked up in the Collect written for today’s feast. The first is the word that the NRSV translates as ‘departure’. It’s a rather pedestrian translation, irretrievably redolent of airport lounges. But in the Greek text the word used is ‘exodus’, a word which we are used to applying to God’s miraculous liberation of his people from slavery in Egypt. That is one way in which the word is applied in the New Testament; although the word is also used to mean simply ‘death’. The second is that this departure is something which Jesus is to ‘accomplish’. It’s very strong-sounding. There’s nothing accidental or half-hearted about what is about to happen. Jesus is aware of it and he intends it. So, on the mountain-top Moses and Elijah speak of the forthcoming death which Jesus purposes, the death which will also be a miraculous liberation of God’s people. Luke insists that the Transfiguration and the crucifixion are connected.
Of course, there are a host of symbolic links between the two events, and the preachers of many generations have drawn attention to these. Both take place on mountain-tops: the former, traditionally, Mount Tabor; the latter, Golgotha. At both Jesus is flanked by two figures: at the former, by Moses and Elijah; at the latter, by two thieves. Both are accompanied by extraordinary meteorological phenomena: the former, by the overshadowing cloud; the latter, by the darkness and the earthquake. Moses and Elijah both have past careers which mark them out as ideal partners for an exodus-conversation. Both were in their time rejected by their communities, who feared and spurned what God was saying through them. Both perform prophetic acts which can be seen as in some sense foreshadowing the crucifixion. Moses raises up the bronze serpent in the wilderness; Elijah stretches himself out on the dead body of the Shunamite boy.
Yet Luke’s eavesdropping makes it clear that the links between the Transfiguration and the Crucifixion are more than symbolic. For my money, the greatest Anglican preacher of the Transfiguration is John Hacket, seventeenth-century parish priest of St Andrew Holborn, and subsequently bishop of Lichfield. In one of his six sermons on the Transfiguration he observes that at a moment of supreme joy and triumph there are many things about which the three could have spoken. Yet they choose what he calls “the epitome of all saving knowledge”. “In the height of this joy” Hacket says “no other talk to entertain the time but about a Cross, and about a woeful tribulation”. The glory that pours forth from Christ on one mountain-top cannot be separated from the cross that awaits him on another. If we are to marvel at the glorified One then we must marvel at the crucified One, Luke insists, for they are the same. The Transfiguration is not a mystical son et lumiere which briefly illuminates the darkness and then is gone, signifying nothing. Transfiguration and crucifixion belong together. Rowan Williams expresses it in these terms: “We can’t understand the glorious brightness of God unless we see that God’s power and splendour is entirely focussed on that sacrifice of love which sets us free and gives us life”.
There are moments in the Christian year when, as it were, the cogs turn, and the story of our salvation advances. Moments like Easter morning, or Pentecost, when we wake to discover that we aren’t quite where we were yesterday. The Transfiguration of Jesus offers us a different experience. It is more like the turning of a kaleidoscope. Before Jesus reaches Jerusalem; before the drama of Holy Week is embarked upon; on Mount Tabor, all of a sudden, the picture comes into focus. What has been jumbled and indistinct has a new clarity. We can see it clearly. The entirety of the story is condensed into a few dazzling minutes – literally.
We see Jesus in all his divine glory, yes; but we also understand that Jesus is to die; and we are assured that his dying cannot extinguish his glory. And what we see and understand and are assured of Jesus we also see and understand and are assured of all who listen to Jesus. These bodies that will return to the dust of which they are made are also the bodies that will be suffused with heaven’s light. In the Transfiguration of Jesus we glimpse the whole cosmic drama of our salvation and we glimpse the hope that in him we are offered. Amen.