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Homily: The Transfiguration

By the Rev’d Canon Andrea Budgey

(2 Kings 2.1-12; Psalm 50.1-6; 2 Corinthians 4.3-6; Mark 9.2-9)

The Transfiguration of Jesus Christ, Byzantine Icon. Click the picture to see site reference.

Every year, on the last Sunday after Epiphany (or, perhaps more significantly, the last Sunday before Lent), our lectionary presents us with one of the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration: Jesus’ appearance to the disciples Peter, James, and John atop an unknown mountain, radiant with the glory of God’s uncreated light, and accompanied by Moses and Elijah.
I’ve always liked the Orthodox icon of the Transfiguration which shows Jesus on the peak of the mountain, with Moses and Elijah on either side; he appears inside an aureole of light, while the two Old Testament figures have to make do with ordinary haloes. In the lower half of the image are the three disciples, either cowering in awe or, in many versions of the icon, actually falling backward down the mountain in their fear and amazement. This has often seemed to me a grotesque, almost comic, element in what is meant to be a depiction of a great and solemn event: the manifestation of God’s glory, the shekhinah, in the living Christ, and a foretaste of his risen and eternal majesty.

          Of course it’s clear in all three Gospel accounts that the disciples are completely taken aback by the vision they’re shown, and the icon represents that confusion very effectively. Peter’s desire to “capture the moment” somehow, by erecting some sort of memorial structure, is evidence of just how little they understand what they’ve seen. On the other hand, it has also occurred to me that it’s only Peter we hear from, on this as on so many other occasions in Mark’s Gospel, and I’ve found myself wondering what might have been going through the minds of James and John, the other two disciples on the mountaintop. I’m afraid it probably says more about me than it does about the deep meaning of scripture, but what I imagine is something like “Peter” – or more likely “Simon”, since that’s the name they’d always known him by – “Simon, shut up, shut up, shut up! Do you have to rob this moment of its solemnity and wonder by saying something stupid? Are you actually trying to make God angry? I don’t understand it any better than you do, but I’m going to wait and see – or maybe hear – what it’s all supposed to mean.”

Granted, this is all in my own imagination, but I think it’s true that Peter’s response to the workings of God is a classic representation of a particular kind of temperament: he needs to say something, do something, to respond to the manifestation of God’s power and glory. And, like all such human efforts, it falls fantastically short, revealing just how far we are from being able to comprehend, describe, depict, or even react adequately to God’s self-revelation. The only answer Peter gets is the voice of God, saying, “This is my Son, listen to him”, but what does Jesus tell them, when the vision has faded? “Keep this to yourselves for the time being.” After his resurrection will they remember and begin to understand, and then they will be able to share what they have seen.

Of course, our lectionary heightens the effect of the disciples’ confusion by giving us the story of Elisha as a contrast. Elijah doesn’t invite Elisha to come with him; in fact, he tries to send him back. Elisha is the initiator; he seems to know exactly what’s going on: he asks for a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit; and he has witnesses who can confirm him as Elijah’s designated successor. Peter, James, and John have only their shared recollections, and their shared astonishment at the dazzling light which came, and then faded away. Their lives cannot yet be fully transformed – there must be a time of waiting.

The first time I preached on these readings was as a student, on the occasion of an infant baptism – a baby who has since grown into one of the senior members of the 18th Willowdale Scouts, as it happens. At the time, I said that while the sacrament we were celebrating was something complete in itself, its full realization would require time, and the support and engagement of parents and godparents. As we approach Lent, we, too are entering into a season of waiting. Although we know that Easter is coming, we cannot jump directly to a celebration of the resurrection, but need a time of growth and transition. It’s appropriate that after the brilliance of the Transfiguration we mark ourselves with ash, the leavings of fire, what remains after light and heat have gone, no longer energy but bare matter. Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel, comes down from the peak to find the disciples struggling to heal a possessed child, whose father memorably says, “I believe; help my unbelief!” We come down from the mountaintop, and follow Jesus into the small, hard, places, the broken and hungry places, to learn what he does, how gently he deals with hearts suspended between belief and unbelief, how love acts in the world. We hold on to the recollection of the glory, for strength and for comfort, and to remind one another of what has been and what is to come. And in time, we come to recognize anew that the icon of the Transfiguration and the icon of the crucifixion are the same form, as intimately related as the positive and negative images of a photograph, Moses and Elijah replaced by two thieves, fellow-criminals with Jesus in the eyes of the powerful. I know I’ve talked about this correspondence before, but this year it occurred to me that the figures of Peter, James, and John also have their parallel in the crucifixion: traditionally it’s Mary, the mother of Jesus, and John, now appointed by Jesus to care for her, at the foot of the cross, but in other versions of the scene it’s the other women followers who gather there, also frightened and confused, also clinging to the best they can muster of love and faithfulness. The glory of the Transfiguration, the shekhinah of the living God, shines through the cross, although the eyes of the body cannot see it. Together, we make this discovery afresh every year, as a sign that our growth into the life of God is a process which never stops, that we are always being called to transformation, each of us in ourselves and together as the Body of Christ. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “…it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” and we are called to be that light for one another. As Peter and James and John needed one another’s memories of what had happened on the mountaintop, and witnessed together to the rest of their community, and to us, so we are called to strengthen one another in the good news when it is hard to hold on to, and to witness to our own experience of the presence of God as we seek to bring the light of transformation into the dark, cold places of the world.