Exodus 24: 12-end
The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.’ 13 So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. 14 To the elders he had said, ‘Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.’
15 Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18 Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
2 Peter 1: 16-end
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. 17 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,[j]with whom I am well pleased.’ 18 We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
19 So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21 because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.[k]
Matthew 17: 1-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I[a] will make three dwellings[b] here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved;[c] with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’
Today’s gospel reading from Matthew chapter 17 tells of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain. It comes after a series of his sayings in the previous chapter, where for the first time he openly speaks about who he is and what will befall him.
Some modern readers have difficulty deciding what kind of story this is. Is it a symbolic picture, showing visually what Jesus has just explained in words? Or was it a unique moment of revelation, a miracle on the mountain top?
Some have suggested it is really the story of a resurrection appearance, which somehow has landed in the wrong place in the gospel narrative.
What the various interpretations have in common is that it tells of some kind of vision, and that what the three disciples see is in some way a fullness of revelation. Before reflecting on what is revealed, I want to look at some of the elements of this vision which live on in my imagination.
Firstly, it takes place on a high mountain. Jesus frequently headed up from the towns on the edge of Lake Galilee into the mountains, to remote places. He did so often to be alone and to pray.
When I read this I think of my own walks in the hills. When our children were young we would usually go to the Lake District at October half term, with either Sheenagh’s parents or mine. And I would be given a morning off in that week and get up before dawn and go walking. There is a stillness, an awe, you feel on the high fells in the early light, sitting alone by Angle Tarn above Langdale, or pausing to look down on Derwentwater from the ridge which runs from Cat Bells all the way up to Great Gable. Mountains are places apart, where we both separate from the hubbub of the world and yet also re-connect with creation.
So on this day in question, Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him. And at some point - perhaps I wonder while he prayed and their eyelids drooped, much as they did later in the garden of Gethsemane - they see him changed into a dazzling, radiant figure, in white robes.
So secondly, there is this symbolism which would have been familiar to any Jewish child – the shining face was like Moses, whose face shone when he saw the Lord on Mount Sinai. The white robes are what the High Priest would wear on the Day of Atonement, that most important Temple drama, where he becomes the visible presence of Yahweh to the people.
As if to emphasise the point that this is an epiphany, a present revelation of God, he is joined by Moses and Elijah, representing God’s Law and his Prophets.
And then a cloud descends. Have you ever been on a mountain walk when suddenly you are enveloped in cloud? The path which was clear before becomes uncertain. And the sun, which before you could see, ahead of you, in one place, now its brightness is diffused all around you. It is a strange, disconcerting experience, a kind of fear, though there is no specific threat, more a feeling of incomprehension, of being in the midst of something which eludes fixed understanding.
The cloud in my imagination gives a sense of mystery, of a truth that can be felt rather than discerned.
And finally, a voice speaks, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Was it perhaps in the wind, or in the silence, as it was for Elijah?
The meaning of what is said is as it was at Jesus’ baptism: A parent’s love, a parent’s delight, accompany and shape this vision of God with us, made known to us.
Peter in his second letter tells of his eyewitness memory of the transfiguration: This is the story he chooses as he tries to convey the full person of Christ: not a resurrection encounter, and not the tumult of the cross. In the transfiguration he found for himself, and offers to his readers, “a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
So what is it, I wonder, which is revealed? In a way, the word transfiguration places this vision apart from the Jesus the disciples have known until now, in the villages and towns around the lakeside. Perhaps that is misleading? For me, what is revealed is the same Jesus, only in the fullness of his identity, both human and of God. Perhaps the brightness comes from the dissolving away of that which obscures, which prevents us from seeing him as he truly is?
And dare we say that this is also true of each of us? That when we are seen truly, fully as ourselves, as God sees us, both human and inhabited by his presence and love, we also shine, with all the saints and with all of creation?
So I wish, and pray, that we would all see as Peter, James and John saw that day, fully, with the eyes of the spirit, seeing all people, and they us, as we fully are, radiant, children of God, with all the mess which divides us and darkens our sight melted away.