The story of Jesus’ transfiguration is the final gospel passage in this season of Epiphany. It’s the culminating story of Jesus being revealed for who he really is. The details are almost dream-like: they tell of a climb up to a mountaintop, a time spent in prayer, and then a vision of Jesus with the great Jewish figures of the law and the prophets, Moses and Elijah.
Jesus’ face is glowing, his clothing is dazzling. Then comes a cloud, and a voice from heaven: “This is my chosen Son [or my beloved Son]. Listen to him.”
The writers of Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospel all tell this story, and it says very clearly that Jesus was revealed in his full glory to those three closest male disciples: Peter, James and John. That glimpse they had, that extraordinary and fleeting moment, was like seeing beyond the curtain of their usual way of seeing, and their limited understanding, to a truth that was greater and more glorious than they’d ever imagined.
There are echoes here of the story of Moses going up to a mountaintop, another holy place of meeting the divine, and being given the law and the covenant of God to bring down to the Israelites. Moses, too, was changed: his face shone, and the people were actually afraid to go near him. He had to veil his face. But whenever he prayed, he would take the veil off.
I see profound symbolism here in these stories; symbolism about seeing the truth and glory of God in Christ, and symbolism about veiling our sight and truth being covered over, the vision clouded.
In the transfiguration story the disciples are terrified when the cloud comes down on that mountaintop, and after the whole experience they say nothing about it to anyone for a long time. The truth of who Jesus is becomes clouded by their fear and confusion, and as he continues on his way to Jerusalem and his death there are many occasions when they don’t understand what he’s doing, and they resist it, and then finally they betray him and run away.
Truth is glimpsed, and then lost. Glory and light are revealed, and then overshadowed with clouds of fear. We have an experience that inspires us and fills us with wonder and joy, and then it’s gone and we’re back in the darkness and doubt.
One of our St Aidan’s community sent me an article this week by a young political scientist called Yascha Mounk. He’s an Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University, in the School of Advanced International Studies, in Washington D.C. He was born in Germany to a Jewish mother. All four of his grandparents were Ukrainian, and many of his forebears were killed in the Holocaust. But Mounk himself grew up in the era of the Berlin Wall coming down. Democracy was expanding, and wars were diminishing. Global communications and trade seemed to be ushering in a new age of peace and tolerance. Like many others, Mounk was optimistic that war and despotism were largely things of the past. A glorious future of humanity embracing the common good beyond national and political boundaries seemed to shine ahead.
But in the article he wrote this week, as Russian armed forces began their attack on Ukraine, Yascha Mounk says, “Chauvinism and ethnic pride, demagoguery and the lust for conquest, it turns out, do not belong to a particular historical epoch. They are thoroughly human potentialities, forever lurking as possible futures should our vigilance waver and our institutions fail to keep the worst instincts of humanity in check—as they just did in the heart of Europe.”
And he ends the piece by writing, “I am not a religious man. But in these painful hours, I have found it impossible to resist a secular prayer:
May God be kind to the Ukrainian people. May God be kind to all of us. For there, but for the grace of history, go we.
The pull of human sin, the lure of power and wealth, the poison of hatred and violence, can so quickly and terribly overshadow the goodness and glory of who we really are, each one of us. Sin lies crouching in all of us, in all our days, no matter what era or country we live in. Societal sin, personal sin. Humans are capable of monstrous evil. The cross of Christ followed not long after his glorious transfiguration, and that cross stands for all the ways we inflict pain on one another, whether it’s a Black man killed by the police, an Indigenous woman abused and missing, a homeless person ignored and freezing to death on the street, or Ukrainian families huddling in the subway while air raid sirens wail over their city. Sin draws a terrible cloud over the light.
And yet we do not resign ourselves to the shadow; we cannot sink into cynicism and pessimism. As Christians we need to see through the veil, the curtain, the cloud, to the glory that lies beyond it – the greater truth about who we are.
It was said that whenever Moses prayed after that mountaintop experience he had, he would remove the veil from his face and pray, as it were, face to face with God. That’s the relationship we are invited into, through Christ: a face to face intimacy with God that has the power to transform us.
St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians says something remarkable:
All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. [2 Cor. 3:18]
We are being transformed into the same image as Christ!
We are being “changed from glory into glory,” as the hymn Love Divine puts it. And it’s the Spirit working in us that does this; the Spirit of God that brings forgiveness and transformation; new life and new hope.
Here’s how The Message paraphrase of the Bible puts it:
Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.
That’s our calling: that’s the gift of God – that our lives should become brighter and more beautiful as God enters in and we become more like Christ. Not so that we can marvel at ourselves, but so that we can be part of the healing this world so badly needs. and so that we can bring the light of Christ into the shadows.
We need to see with our eyes wide open: see the sin of the world for what it is, and see the grace and glory of God in the midst of the world. And we need to come prayerfully face to face before God in humility and trust, with all veils cast aside. Therein lies our hope and our courage, if we are to be the children of light.
May it be so. Amen.