Second Sunday of Lent. Fr Columba Ryan preaches on the transfiguration of Christ.
In Mark’s Gospel we reach a turning point when Jesus went with his disciples to Caesarea Philippi. It is there that Peter professed his belief that Jesus was the Christ, the anointed one. Until then the Master had led his disciples gently and without shock. Now he began to teach them that the Son of Man (the way he regularly referred to himself) was destined to suffer grievously, to be rejected by the elders and to be put to death.
This was altogether too much for Peter. He argued against it. But Jesus persisted. The disciples had been led to this point with little understanding of the way ahead. It was time now to make it clear that the path to be trodden was not one of glory and acclaim. The disciples had to be taken on to this frightening truth. By Peter’s profession of faith they had become committed to Jesus and now had to learn the full consequences of that commitment. It was very far from what they had expected.
Several times more Jesus would have to renew his prophecy of what he would have to endure. But before that he gave them a glimpse of the glory that even so was his. He took those three especially favoured amongst them, Peter and James and John, and in their sight became transfigured. His clothes became dazzling white, he was seen to be in conversation with Moses and Elijah. Moses the lawgiver, Elijah the Prophet — in their persons was represented the whole religious history of Israel for the Israelites referred to what we now call the ‘Old Testament’ by the name ‘the Law and the Prophets’. In this vision of Jesus transfigured he was seen, whatever dreadful suffering lay ahead, to be the fulfilment of all Israel’s hopes.
Peter with his usual impetuosity was delighted and wanted to hold the moment for all time. He burbled away, suggesting a tent for each of the persons seen. Mark tells us Peter didn’t know what to say, they were all so frightened. I think we may take it that this fear was characteristic of an encounter between humans and the divine.
‘A cloud came, covering them in shadow…’ The ‘cloud’ evokes a standard biblical image of the overshadowing presence of God. This was the cloud that led the people as they escaped from Egypt, the cloud that filled the tent of the Ark, the cloud that filled the Temple at its dedication, the cloud of which the angel Gabriel spoke at the Annunciation when he told Mary that ‘the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. No wonder that those three disciples at the Transfiguration were filled with awe, the fear of the divine.
And then as suddenly as it had all happened it suddenly passed. ‘When thy looked round, they saw no one with them any more but only Jesus’. The glory had departed; they stood on the bleak hillside with no one but the familiar figure of Jesus. The momentary encouragement of seeing Jesus in his glory had passed; they were returned to an every day reality with a future they now had to accept as full of cruelty and menace.
And yet they were not alone. Jesus was with them. The familiar Jesus, but all the same Jesus their leader, their hope and inspiration.
Surely this has a lesson for us. The world we live in can at times be very terrifying with so much cruelty, so much injustice, even so much physical pain. It should be no part of our Christian faith to deny all this to pretend that everything is lovely and beautiful. It isn’t!
And to say that it is, is rather like Peter’s reaction to what Jesus had to tell him of the future. He remonstrated, but he had to be told that his thoughts were not God’s thoughts. We may sometimes have moments of exaltation, times when everything goes in our favour. But at other times a kind of bleakness descends. We stand as it were on the bleak hillside of our life, and there is no one there but only Jesus.
But this ‘only Jesus’ is our hope and our salvation; not a triumphant conqueror but a man of sorrows like ourselves; but wonder to relate, a man who is also God. The Christian faith holds that extraordinary assurance!