The Rector Writes...
“We had seen his majesty for ourselves”: that is the claim made by Saint Peter (2 Peter 1:16) and it emphasises the apostolic witness to the true and full identity of the One who had called them to follow him. In their initial encounter with Jesus, the first disciples knew only that a Stranger had made such an impression on them that they had felt compelled to leave home, work and security in order to be in his company. They could not explain the attraction, but they sensed that their future was bound up with this Carpenter from Nazareth. When Pope Saint John Paul II added the “Mysteries of Light” to the recitation of the Rosary, he placed the Transfiguration among them. What we celebrate this week (on Friday, 6th August) is, indeed, a profound mystery filled with light. The humanity of Jesus is suffused with divine glory, and, as if that were not enough, those present see their Lord conversing with the two archetypal figures of the Old Covenant, Moses the Law-giver and Elijah the father of prophecy. Peter, James and John would have been well-versed in the Scriptures and they would have made immediate connections with the vision of Daniel: “I gazed into the visions of the night, and I saw coming on the clouds of heaven one like a son of man. On him was conferred sovereignty, glory and kingship”.
For these three ordinary fisherman it must have been a mind-blowing experience. Moses had knelt before a burning bush, Elijah had been hidden behind rocks as God passed by, but here these disciples are witnessing at first hand the voice and the glory of the Divinity. No wonder that “the disciples fell on their faces, overcome with fear” (Matthew 17:6). But what is the significance of the Transfiguration? On the face of it, Jesus’s revelation in the glory of his divinity seems to contradict the concealment which goes to the heart of the Incarnation. The Eternal Word having assumed human identity, never seems to have spoken in other than ambiguous terms about his place within the Godhead but here on the top of a mountain there is no room for doubt. The Voice speaks unequivocally from within the cloud: “this is my Son, the Beloved: he enjoys my favour”. The traditional explanation is that the Transfiguration looks forward to the passion and subsequent glorification of Jesus in his resurrection. What the disciples witness fleetingly here they will recognise again on Easter Day and the vision on the mountain is allowed to console them through all that must happen in the coming, testing days.
There might well be, though, another message being offered which is not just about reassurance for those about to have their share in Christ’s rejection and suffering. A clue is given in the two figures who appear alongside Jesus, Moses and Elijah. For the Hebrew Bible the war against evil is personified in these two great figures who struggled one against Pharoah and the Egyptians and the other against Jezebel and the gods of Canaan. For those with the eyes to see and the ears to hear, the effective sign language of the Transfiguration is that these are the final days and that the universal confrontation with Satan and the forces of evil, with sin and with death, is moving inexorably towards its climax. What happened in front of Peter, James and John is the beginning of the last act in the drama by which the Father takes back the initiative and his Kingdom is established in the death and resurrection of his Son. In this light, the Transfiguration is not just a foretaste of Easter but of the Second Coming, the Last Day and the Final Judgment.
The Dominican writer, Aidan Nichols, says this: “Jesus’s Transfiguration may be described as the foundation of all Christian theology. For theology begins with the flooding of the mind by the uncreated light and the concentration of the heart on the person of the Saviour. We cannot create this foundation: rather, we live within it, resting upon it. So this feast is one in which to exult, filled as it is with the beauty, love and joy of God now within our reach in Christ, our friend and brother. The Transfiguration is the sign of our humanity on the way to final redemption in God, the dawn of a history of joy in the midst of the unanswered suffering of the world”
That really is something to rejoice about!