Exodus 24: 12 - 18
2 Peter 1: 16 - 21
Matthew 17: 1 - 9
When you make the choice about where to go on holiday, are you a sea or a mountain person?
If you asked me that question, I’d find it a bit difficult to answer, but would probably come down on the side of the sea, because coming from India and especially during my childhood days we did spend much time near the sea. And yet, I also have unforgettable memories of the Western Ghats of South India and later on in life the Himalayas: the clear, crisp air, the tranquillity and breathtaking beauty surrounding you. Very special to the mountain setting is the experience of being up lifted, of one’s cares and burdens being reduced to size, being left behind at the foot of the mountain, so to speak. Above all there is that sense of wonder and of being one with the created order. The awareness of a different reality overtakes you. There is that indefinable and illogical, yet very real knowledge of God’s presence and of being in communion with that presence.
Not that we should romanticise these mountain experiences too much. It is true that in the Bible important and defining encounters with God, in which he communicates his message to his people are set on a mountain. But mountains are also places associated with extreme solitude, desolation and temptation, where in that rarefied atmosphere the encounter is with evil rather than with God, as we find in the account of Christ’s being tempted in the wilderness.
Both the Old Testament lesson of Exodus 24 and the Gospel, however, tell of transforming encounters with God, out of this world, yet of defining and permanent significance not only for those who shared these experiences.
Significantly, Jesus, in contrast to Moses, did not go up to the mountain alone. He took his closest friends with him. They came to witness the wondrous thing that was to happen – yes. And they were to record it for posterity. But more importantly, they were to be part of it, to share it and be included in it. And it did indeed become a defining and transforming experience for them.
All at once they saw their beloved leader in a totally new light. It was one of those experiences where language is challenged to describe the indescribable, and the mind grapples with the inscrutable. The Jesus, whom they followed along the dusty Galilean roads and through all the hardships of their life together, was revealed to them in the unearthly and overwhelming glory of God. With new eyes they saw and recognised in him God’s blissful presence and they heard the voice affirming God’s intimate identification with this Jesus: “This is my beloved Son. …Listen to him”. These were the same words that were heard at the time when Jesus came to be baptised by John in the river Jordan – another defining moment in Jesus’ life.
The disciples were awe struck; they were ecstatic that they should be part of this: This was good, too good to lose. This experience should go on and on. Why not stay up here far from the madding crowd and away from the pressures and deprivations below?
However, having had the crucial experience on the mountaintop the disciples have to descend to the plain again. Here they are confronted with the real world, a world of suffering, pain and disappointment. And today? Is it so very different? Many people are living in utter poverty, there are numerous situations of conflict; there is war; there is so much ruin, so many tears, so many lives lost, and homes destroyed.
Mountaintops may be of significance for seclusion and enlightenment, but much of the real life is seen and lived on the plains. And so Jesus and his disciples must come down. And the road from this mountaintop leads much more purposely to Golgotha, the place of the cross. The transfiguration directs Jesus and the disciples on towards Jerusalem and what awaits them there. Paradoxically it is in Jesus’ ignominious death on the cross that God’s glory is fully revealed. Suffering and glory are mysteriously intermingled.
During these challenging, uncertain and fragile times, let us reflect that we do not exist for ourselves but for the sake of others. Service and sacrifice are an intrinsic part of our vocation.
The transfiguration is a statement that through the incarnation of Christ, human beings themselves can be transformed into the likeness of God, and to full humanity.
We may need to expand our horizons to help us think globally about God’s kingdom on earth. The marginalized must be embraced for in them we can see the transfiguring face of Christ himself. God can be illuminated by relationships that are wider and made brighter. The transfiguration in all its brightness is a burning vision, which refuses to be confined to any particular corner, but strengthens us in our commitment to God. The disciples were also frightened when they saw Jesus transfigured. We do not know how prepared we will be when confronted by the brightness of God, but we can be assured that where the Spirit of the Lord is, we can be transformed, and it is in this transformation that there is freedom, there is reconciliation, and there will be peace.
The Ven Dr Leslie Nathaniel
The Ven Dr Leslie Nathaniel is the Archdeacon of Eastern, Germany and Northern Europe in the Diocese in Europe since 2019. With his roots in the Church of South India where he grew up, he has a wide understanding of the effects of Climate change. Ecumenically, he represents the Church of England on the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches and is still called upon to support the work of the Conference of European Churches.