Sunday, February 21, 2016

We were with him on the holy mountain

Icon of the transfiguration in the Romanian Orthodox Church in Jericho

Most of us have friends who accuse us of believing myths when we share the Good News of Jesus with them. It is reassuring to know that the same accusation was levelled at the first Christians, leading St Peter (yes, I still think he wrote that epistle!) to say about the Transfiguration of Jesus, which we celebrate in today’s Mass: “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty . . . We were with him on the holy mountain . . .” (2 Peter 1:16-18)

The Transfiguration is a “theophany”, a cosmic, earth-shaking manifestation and experience of heavenly glory right here in this world. A supernatural revelation of God. Of course, it is primarily something that happens to JESUS who had climbed the mountain that day to commune with the Father. We know that Jesus often went into a lonely place to pray. But his experience this day overflows into the lives of Peter, James and John, the inner core of the apostolic band. In the timelessness of that amazing moment they see the glory that Jesus had with the Father before the world was made (John 17:5), the glory he laid aside in order to become our Saviour, the glory with which he would be glorified in his cross and resurrection, the glory that he would one day share with all his people (Hebrews 2:10).

But what does it mean? What is this “glory”?

God most certainly wanted to do more than entertain the apostles with a sort of cosmic electric light show! What is this dazzling light? What is the cloud that “overshadows” them, from which the voice of God the Father says, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him”?

Well, these things aren’t happening in a vacuum. As devout Jews, Peter, James and John know all about the manifestation of God’s glory in times past. That’s why they fall back in fear. They know that the cloud on the mountain-top is not just any old cloud. They know that it's not a fog or a natural mist! It is the SHEKINAH GLORY. “Shekinah” comes from a Hebrew word which means “to dwell.” The “shekinah” glory of God is his actual manifest and uncreated presence with his people. This manifest glory of God in the shekinah cloud which gives off light  - a “luminous” cloud - appears at some crucial points in the Old Testament narrative. And so we recall:

(1) The people's experience of God in a luminous cloud and pillar of fire when he led them through the wilderness (Exodus 13).

(2) The cloud descending powerfully on the newly finished Tabernacle (“Tent of Meeting”) in such a manifestation of God’s glory that Moses himself could not even go inside (Exodus 19).

(3) The cloud of God's glory descending on the mountain at the giving of the law (Exodus 24).

(4) Moses being hidden in the cleft of the rock as the cloud of God’s glory passes by (Exodus 33).

(5) The dedication of Solomon’s temple when the people are praising and worshipping the Lord, and the cloud of God's glory descends, filling the temple area. So intense and powerful is this manifestation of God’s presence that the priests are physically unable to remain on their feet (2 Chronicles 5).

On the mountain, Peter, James and John know they are witnessing and experiencing something very precious that has not been experienced in their people’s history for six hundred years - the SHEKINAH cloud of great glory. The top of that mountain is covered by the glory - the uncreated light - of God.

They experience a further revelation of who Jesus really is. That’s why the episode is central to Christian believing, Christian worship, and the life of prayer. St Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390 AD) sees the transfiguration as a promise for the people of Jesus: “On the mountain he was bright as the lightning and became more luminous than the sun, initiating us into the mystery of the future” (Theological Orations 4.19).

Many spiritual guides, especially from the Eastern Churches, encourage us to discern the light of Mount Tabor in our hearts and in the world around us. Somewhat mysteriously, the prologue of St John's Gospel speaks of Jesus as the true light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world (John 1:9). The Jesuit William Johnson reminds us that, as the people of Jesus, we “experience the inner fire of love,” that in Jesus we are “divinized through divine grace.” These things are all part of the same reality. In fact the word for “transfigured” in the original Greek of the New Testament is where the English “metamorphosis” comes from - you remember - describing the transformation of a grub into a butterfly. In today’s Gospel the word refers to the complete change in the appearance of Jesus . . . brighter than the light, revealing his true glory and identity to them. But the very same word is used in two other places in the New Testament in order to describe the change that is supposed to be taking place in our lives as we grow in him.

The first speaks of our transformation by the renewal of our MIND in God’s truth: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be TRANSFORMED by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2)

The second speaks of our transformation by the work of the Holy Spirit bringing us into an ever deepening inner freedom as we behold the Lord’s glory. This has to do with prayer and worship (confirming the old saying that for better or for worse we become like what we worship!): “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are BEING CHANGED into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

Origen (185-254 AD) speaks of those who worship the Lord and seek to walk with him "in the light"  being transformed by his glory: "When [Jesus] is transfigured, his face also shines as the sun that he may be manifested to the children of light who have put off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, and are no longer the children of darkness or night but have become the sons of day, and walk honestly as in the day. Being manifest, he will shine unto them not simply as the sun, but as demonstrated to be the sun of righteousness."

So it is that we gather on our Eucharistic Mount of Transfiguration Sunday by Sunday – and for some of us more often than that. We gaze upon Jesus, the Word made flesh, who continues to “tabernacle” in our midst in the Blessed Sacrament. May we continue responding to his Word, opening our hearts to his love and our minds to his truth, so as to be “changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place . . . lost in wonder, love and praise” (Charles Wesley).


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