John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.
One of the problems with the Holy Land when I went on pilgrimage there as an undergraduate is that wherever we went there was a church building. There was hardly a sacred site that is not adorned - or otherwise! - with a building. (And this was in the days before the Holy Land had become the religious theme park it seems to be today.)
However, there are one or two places where even the churches – those 1920s neo-Byzantine creations of the Italian Antonio Barluzzi – can’t get in the way, can even enhance a sacred place.
The church on the summit of Mountain of Transfiguration is one such church. A few days after visiting it I found myself making connections that have informed my thinking ever since, connections to place alongside a different, darker, more sombre twentieth century desecration of transfiguration.
August 6th, 1945, seen through a ten year old Japanese child’s eyes:
In the morning I was eating peanuts. I saw a light. I was knocked to little sister’s sleeping place. When we were saved, I could only see as far as the tram. My mother and I started to pack our things. The neighbours were walking around, burned and bleeding. We went to the park. A whirlwind came. Next day I went to Taiko bridge and met my friends Kikuki and Murakami. They were looking for their mothers. But Kikuki’s mother was wounded and Murakami’s mother, alas, was dead.
(quoted in the East London Daily Despatch, August 1969)
And what was the church doing on August 6th 1945? Celebrating the Transfiguration. How ironic that the Christian west should drop the first atom bomb on the day when we remember that Jesus was transfigured by God’s light, even though we are also reminded of the darkness and suffering to come for him, the darkness out of which the Light of the World shines for all to see, if they can see beyond the tram.
Every year at the beginning of August my thoughts inevitably turn to the darkness of that bright light and mushroom cloud. Yet every year I find not so much a deepening gloom, as an increasing conviction that if we allow Christ to transfigure and transform our lives, we can begin ourselves to transform the world by being instruments of God’s infinite and transfiguring love. But it is not an easy task; and love is a much abused word.
But as I reflected on my visit to the mountain of transfiguration all those years ago, I began to place another understanding of Transfiguration alongside that one. Of course, there was nothing new in these thoughts; but when a thought, a connection, a realisation becomes your own for the first time, however old it is, it is always new.
Transfiguration is all about the Word. It is a feast of the Incarnation. There with Jesus are two figures. Let’s forget the disciples, the fear, the cloud, even, for the moment, the voice. Who are those two figures? And what do they represent?
They are Moses and Elijah, the Word as Torah (written), the Word as Prophecy (spoken). And they stand on either side of Jesus, the Word made flesh, incarnate. It’s intriguing how this incident is not included in John’s gospel. We might have expected the theologian of the incarnation to have made great play of it – especially as John was there. But its absence in John is just another of the remarkable dissimilarities that are actually links between the first three gospels and the fourth.
So there we are, standing on the mountain top, with the two archetypal representatives of the Word from Israel’s history. The Word of Torah and the Word of Prophecy flank Word made flesh. A trinity of a different kind! On the mountain these two classic ways of understanding how God has spoken meet face to face with the God who is speaking, with God's Word made flesh in Jesus. And while the glory is shared by all three, the transfiguring, the transformation, is all Jesus's, drawing our attention inexorably to him alone.
And what were they talking about? His Exodus, which he would accomplish in Jerusalem (Luke 9.31). And we are straight back into the disconnected connectedness with John here. For the synoptists, the moment of the greatest revelation of glory (prior to the resurrection) is surely the moment of Transfiguration. But for John, this moment is the thing Moses and Elijah spoke about – the Exodus which Jesus would accomplish in Jerusalem, that new saving act of God, the one which through the lifting up of the Son of Man would draw all people to him.
In his death and in his resurrection, Jesus brings about a new and final deliverance, better than that Exodus from Egypt which the Jews understood to have been God's decisive act of salvation for them. It is no accident that Holy Week and Easter are played out against the backcloth of the Passover Feast when all those Exodus events were brought to mind. In Jesus and through Jesus, because he died and rose again, we are delivered from the ultimate power of sin, self and death; delivered so that we may live not for ourselves but for God.
From that point onwards at least three of the disciples saw Jesus in another light, a different light. It occurs to me that whatever our individual failings, there are times when others see us in a different light. It may, of course, be for the worse. But it can also be - when we too have been touched by the light cloud which covered the mountain top – for the better; not for ourselves, but for the sake of others.
So if you will not read, and if you will not hear, then at least listen! “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him”.
Jesus told us to beware of the Pharisees, to do what they say but not to do what they do. And because of this we have always been inclined – usually rightly – to be scathing about people whose deeds do not match their words. But sometimes “Do as I say, even if my doing is deficient” can be the only way a Christian can manage. (The tragedy is that too often Christians can do the doing better than the saying, and because there is no articulation nobody knows why the doing is being done).
And sometimes, despite ourselves, when we are touched by Christ, a tiny transfiguration happens to us, of which we may be unaware, but which others may notice. And this may lead them to listen and act on what we say even if we can’t do it ourselves. It is, for instance, a humbling experience to discover that even in the midst of severe doubt and total failure to live the gospel, a priest can still be priestly for others. This is not to say that we should sin more that grace may abound the more. Just to recognise what the transfiguring God can do.
Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.’ (Psalm 80.19)
God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
(2 Corinthians 4.6)
‘Changed from glory into glory’ (Charles Wesley)
‘From glory to glory advancing’ (Hymn from the Liturgy of St James, c4th century)
And a final word from Michael Ramsey:
We are not allowed to linger there. We are bidden to journey on to Calvary and there learn of the darkness and the desolation which are the cost of the glory. But from Calvary to Easter there comes a Christian hope of immense range: the hope of the transformation not only of mankind but of the whole cosmos too.
(Michael Ramsey, Be still and know)