A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham
Sunday 14 February 2021- 11:00
2 Corinthians 4:3-6 and Mark 9:2-9
(video at the bottom of the page)
“Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.”
This penultimate verse of the Gospel reading we just heard might sound like a bit of an anti-climax after the dramatic event that came before it. This is the event that we know as the Transfiguration of Jesus. Matthew, Mark and Luke all describe it in detail, though with subtle differences. We might ask why John doesn’t include it in his Gospel; the answer, probably, is that, for John, the whole of Jesus’ life was a continual veiling and unveiling of the Word made flesh. But Matthew, Mark and Luke all concentrate the unveiling of Christ’s heavenly glory in a single dazzling moment, which stands out dramatically from the wider narrative. And then, the words I started with seem to conclude, everything went back to normal. The three disciples saw only the familiar figure of Jesus. But the point of the story is that it’s in this human being who is left standing in front of them that authority of God uniquely resides.
In the story of the Transfiguration, we read that Jesus took with him his inner circle of followers, Peter, James and John, and led them up a high mountain. Luke’s version suggests that it was night-time, and that Jesus was leading them up there to pray. While Jesus was praying, his appearance changed. His face began to shine with a strange radiance, and even his clothes turned dazzling white. The whiteness of garments often features in apocalyptic writings like Daniel, and Mark is out of his depth trying to describe it- whiter- he tells us- than any human being could bleach them. As the tired disciples watch, astonished, Moses and Elijah appear, and speak with Jesus. Confused and fearful, Peter- in his blundering way- does his best to say something appropriate to the situation. But a cloud envelops him, and a voice from the cloud interrupts him. And all the disciples are terrified.
It’s not surprising that historians, and modern readers, have had difficulties with this passage. The transformation of Jesus, the appearance of Moses and Elijah, the sound of the heavenly voice: these out-of-the-ordinary, heightened experiences of reality aren’t the kind of thing that normally happens to most of us. So what really did happen? Were the disciples hallucinating? Or is the story simply made up? Well before the advent of modern science, the earliest Christians were keen to rebut such ideas: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” we read in the Second Letter of Peter, “but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty… We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”
Is this, then, a story with a historical core? Some have attempted to explain away the supernatural elements: the radiance of the Transfiguration, for example, could have been the morning sunlight rising over the misty peaks of the hills. Or perhaps- is often been suggested- it was an instance of a common enough phenomenon observed elsewhere: the aura that transforms the faces of the saints at prayer. Apparently, the Victorian detective writer and creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even argued that the transfiguration was biblical evidence of spiritualism: Peter, James and John formed a psychic circle and, in an apostolic séance, materialised the Old Testament heroes Moses and Elijah (above analysis and examples quoted in theologian Brian Gerrish’s book, The Pilgrim Road, p.65)
Intriguing though some of these theories may be, they don’t ultimately get us very far. And they miss the point. For Mark, this revelation required no explanation; its importance lay not in how it happened but in what it means. Matthew, in his version, describes it as a “vision”. And this would seem to be the most appropriate description. For the three disciples who shared in it, it was hugely significant, and life-changing, because of the new understanding it gave them of who Jesus was. The verse I quoted at the start is not at all an anti-climax but the meaning of the whole event: the man Jesus who stands before them now, who, according to Matthew’s version, comes over to the terrified disciples, touches them and tells them to get up, is no less than God’s special, beloved Son, lifted up even beyond Moses and Elijah who prepared the way for him.
Why has the lectionary given us this story of the Transfiguration now? The final verse gives us a clue. We’ve just finished the season of Epiphany, and next week we start the season of Lent. The Transfiguration is an Epiphany story, in that it makes manifest God’s glory in Christ; it reveals his identity as God’s Son. But it also belongs with Lent and Easter. Jesus tells the disciples that they should keep it secret until his glory is revealed again after he has risen from the dead. The transfiguration, for all its splendour, does not spare him from suffering and death, but leads him necessarily to the cross. From this moment on, Mark points the narrative towards the Passion, towards Jerusalem.
So for a brief moment, the veil is lifted, and the favoured three disciples catch a glimpse of the glory of Christ in the humanity of Jesus. Yet when the time comes for Jesus to be betrayed, arrested and put on trial, Peter will fail him. Not trusting the vision that came to him on the mountaintop, he will deny his Lord. The disciples didn’t understand Jesus’ talk about rising from the dead. But is it necessarily easier for us, who have the benefit of hindsight, who know how the story ends, and who do understand? When the clouds move in, we still have trouble remembering the vision on the mountaintop. For us as for Peter, it’s a hard lesson to learn, to trust the rare moments of insight and heightened joy that are sometimes granted to us, and to let them help us through the long days of sadness and doubt. As we know all too well at the moment, these times are tough. But even when we can no longer see the hand of the Heavenly Father, we can still hear his voice: “This is my Son…listen to him!”
Paul, writing to the Corinthians, makes a similar point. Writing to encourage Christians who were going through terrible suffering, he reminds us in beautiful words of gospel of the glory of Christ that we have received, of Christ who, though human, is the image of God: “For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” In Evensong a couple of weeks ago, I spoke about a doctor, Rachel Clarke’s memoir, Breath-taking, where, reflecting on her experiences of Covid intensive care wards, she returns constantly to the theme of faces: the difficulty of patients and family not being able to see the doctors’ faces, because of the PPE they have to wear, or the harshness of not being able to break bad news face to face; the faces not visible of patients lying prone on their beds. Now as never before, we appreciate the simple pleasure and privilege of seeing a real human face. Today is Valentine’s Day, yet this year there will be no sermons about the over-commercialisation of the day: it reminds us simply of the precious gift of human connection, makes us thankful for the faces of those we love- whether we see them at the moment, or not.
When God chooses to show the divine face, it’s not normally in direct theophanies but in a human face. Even in these times, God appears to us, in the undeserved kindnesses of other people, in inspiring words of scripture that remind us to have hope in the glory of God revealed in the human face of Christ.
For most of us, we don’t generally experience things as dramatic as the story of the transfiguration. But each of us is called to do what the heavenly voice said: Listen to Jesus, because he is God’s beloved son. And as we hold on to that voice, as we experience it through others, even if- like Peter- we still feel scared or get things wrong, we may find that glory creeps up on us unawares, strengthening us, as it did those first disciples, for the road ahead.