By the Rev Msgr Harry Entwistle
Sunday 12 March, 2017
St Ninians & St Chads Church, Maylands
The story of the Transfiguration of Jesus begins in the willingness of Abraham to put his absolute trust in God and set out on a journey to an unknown place that required him to leave his country, relatives, friends and his father. The Book of Genesis tells us that when God created the heavens and the earth it was good, but when Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and those who built the Tower of Babel made decisions that were self-centred rather than God-centred, the result was disastrous. The relationship between God and his creation was damaged but not destroyed.
The trustful obedience of Abraham is the beginning of the healing of the breach between God and his creation that was completed in the self-offering of Jesus on the Cross and confirmed in his resurrection when God’s glory was fully revealed.
Peter, James and John catch a glimpse of the glory to come on the Mount of Transfiguration, and Matthew’s account of this event presents it as a precursor to what was to follow. At the very end of Matthew’s Gospel, we read that Jesus gathers all of his disciples, not just three of them, on a mountain. He tells them that all authority has been given to him and so he is sending them out to evangelise and make disciples of all people through baptism. The mission of the Church is presented to the Church, the new people of Israel as a continuation of God’s plan of salvation that began with Abraham and clarified on the Mount of Transfiguration.
On that mountain Jesus’ face shone like the sun, as did that of Moses’ after he had collected the Ten Commandments. Jesus’ clothes were dazzling white like those of the angel at the tomb on Easter morning and those of God’s righteous at the heavenly banquet when God’s Kingdom comes in its completeness. Note the thread of glory – Transfiguration – Crucifixion – Resurrection – Heavenly Banquet.
Matthew tells us that on the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appear. They do represent the Law and the prophets, but it is more than that. Moses promised that God would raise up a prophet like himself who would reveal God’s will (Deut 18:15-19). When Jesus invited Philip to follow him, Philip found Nathanael and told him that he had found the one that Moses’ promised (Jn 1:45).
The prophet Malachi said that Elijah would appear before God’s glory was revealed, and interestingly, the Jewish Rabbis who commented on the Book of Deuteronomy said that God told Moses that when he sent Elijah before that day, Moses would accompany him (Deuteronomy Rabba 3:17). Their joint appearance is a sign that God’s plan of salvation was about to be completed.
Peter of course blurts out a very human response to this vision. He wants to hold on to this experience, but before he could finish speaking the cloud of God’s presence came down and the voice of God interrupts him. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
The Transfiguration is not the end. It is not a permanent state of events. There is more to be done. It is not surprising that the disciples were afraid, but as he had previously spoken to them in the storm on Lake Galilee, Jesus came to them, touched them and told them not to be afraid. The angel at the tomb on Easter Day told the women the exact same thing.
The cloud, the voice and the heavenly visitors disappear and only Jesus is left to head to Jerusalem and complete his mission.
On the mountain Moses and Elijah flank Jesus; on the Cross it is two thieves, one of whom asks to be remembered by Jesus in the Kingdom. On the mountain, Jesus’ clothes shine with brilliant radiance; on Calvary they are taken from him to exacerbate his humiliation and divide up in a lottery. On the mountain the divine voice declares him to be God’s Son; on Calvary it is his executioners who acknowledge him to be a son of God. The mountain scene is witnessed close up by the inner circle of disciples; the crucifixion by a group of women standing at a distance.
St Matthew wants us to understand the glory of Transfiguration of Jesus and the glory revealed in his crucifixion and resurrection as two sides of the same coin. No wonder St Paul urges his protégé Timothy, not to be afraid of proclaiming the Gospel of God’s love revealed through Jesus’ death and resurrection and not to worry what others think of him. The certainty of changes in life and the possibility of ridicule, vilification and even physical harm are part and parcel of discipleship. Yet remember what our salvation has cost God.
Today, we have glimpsed the glory of the Transfiguration after which Jesus brought his disciples down the mountain and headed to Jerusalem. For the rest of Lent, we are heading to Jerusalem, walking the Way of the Cross with Christ. This is the only way we will recognise the glory of God on the Cross and his splendour in the Resurrection.