Transfiguration 2nd March 2014 Year A
We don’t do the sacred, the mysterious or the transcendent very well. As a secularised society we find these things very difficult. The ancients, and indeed many cultures even today, handle these things far more proficiently and with greater aplomb than we ever could. They understand that there is a need for sacred space and one doesn’t just go blundering into it. Rather one enters with awe and trepidation, wonder and fear. Our stories from the Scriptures, one from the Hebrew Scriptures and one from the Christian Scriptures are accounts of such entering into the realm of awe and wonder. The experience, as we can see in these two accounts, can be overwhelming and transforming.
The Jewish people knew all about transcendence. Determined to preclude God being conveniently formed in our own image to meet our own needs, they held that God could neither be imaged nor named. Despite such cultural training in dealing transcendence Peter, James and John are nonetheless overwhelmed by the experience they undergo on the mountain as described in our Gospel. We are of course again in the usual place for such transcendent experiences and sacred encounters, up upon a mountain. The usual sorts of things occur, mist, cloud, change of appearance and clothes, the very same things as happened on the mountain with Moses long before. Then Moses and Elijah appear. They represent the great symbols of the Law and the Prophets. Jesus, they are testifying, is the fulfilment of both these.
Yet in the midst of classic religious imagery to do with the divine and transcendence I want to suggest something far more radical happens. Matthew like Mark before him, and also like his contemporary Luke, places the story immediately following the episode of Peter’s confession of faith that Jesus is the Messiah, that in turn being followed by Jesus’ preaching to those going with to Jerusalem and how that journey will culminate in his death and of how it will entail for those going with him that they pick up their own cross. To this Peter responds that such an ignominious death must never come to Jesus, with Jesus in turn responding with great vehemence calling Peter’s protest that framed by Satan.
Given the context then in which this account takes place it represents not the classic epiphany of divine power but rather is a means of transforming the image we hold of the divine. In Jesus the divine leaves that sphere of the transcendent and mysterious behind to descend down the mountain and continue that journey to Jerusalem and suffering death. That those symbolising the Law and Prophets give testimony to his way is to confirm it against Peter’s earlier rebuke that this must not happen to Jesus. The episode with the heavenly words of God, ‘this is my beloved son, with whom I am pleased’ is paralleled with a previous occasion when those same words were uttered by God, the baptism of Jesus. In this episode Jesus is being baptised into his suffering death. As he was baptised into his ministry now he is being baptised into the culmination of that ministry.
Here then we have a transformation, a transfiguration of the divine. God rather than being remote from human suffering, omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient, is now the one who in Christ chooses to be specifically present in our world with all the limitations which human existence brings. However, even more than that, the human existence which God in Christ takes on, is one which involves suffering and death. The divine normally encountered in the transcendent mountaintop experience is found now in the midst of our world, even at the point of its greatest injustice and suffering. After-all could there be a greater unjust suffering than that which will be meted out upon Jesus when he reaches Jerusalem? The mountaintop points to Jerusalem. It is there that the truer and fuller encounter with the divine will take place, the point where God in Christ suffers in the midst of, and for the world. For the Christian the encounter with God is not through the mystical taking place in some transcendent place but through the cross, as sign of suffering for and with our world. The transcendent and mystical only have validity when rooted in our world.
This surely is the lesson in both our stories from the Gospel and from the Hebrew Scriptures. The transcendent experience for Moses is to equip him to lead the community on the continuation of the exodus journey, that community living in a new manner, under the commandments of God which he passes to them. The Gospel story links also with that exodus tradition. The tents that are offered by Peter are those usually used during the harvest season when the harvesters, rushing to get the harvest, would sleep out in the field. They later became associated with the Exodus story and the need to camp along the way. In Jesus a new exodus to freedom, a new liberation is taking place. How strange however, that a journey into suffering and death is liberating. How can Jesus’ journey be so liberating? It is so because it tells us that God is always present with us. There is nowhere which is ‘God forsaken’. God is not just present in the mystical religious experience, in the transcendent places, but present in the whole of the human journey even when it is a journey to death; an unjust, torturous death in this case. There is a transformation, a transfiguration of both the concepts of the divine and human suffering. No longer is human suffering pointless or God forsaken. Instead God is present in the midst of our human existence, even in its suffering. The God present in only the good times, or only in the times of mountain top religious experience is not much help when most needed. The God who joins us in our human journey in all of its aspects, especially in its suffering, is the God by whom we are much better served.
Jesus’ journey into that suffering service is affirmed by the divine voice, ‘this is my son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.’ Let us coming down from the mountain top go with him.