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Faith >

This week's readings: Sunday next before Lent


2 Kings 2.1-12;

2 Corinthians 4.3-6;

Mark 9.2-9

WHEN I READ Mark’s account of the transfiguration in church on Sunday, I shall begin at the beginning. I shall start at verse one of chapter nine, not at verse two as the lectionary stipulates. I’ll do so, not because I sit loose to lectionaries, but simply because the "difficult" saying of the first verse isn’t really difficult at all. In the light of what transpires, it makes good sense.

"Some here will not die", says Jesus, "until they see God’s Kingdom come." Jesus is not saying that it will all be done and dusted in his disciples’ lifetime — though he may have thought that — but announcing the nature of what is shortly to follow. His "metamorphosis" — that’s Mark’s word for it — is a foretaste of the glorious Kingdom.

Transfiguring experiences have one thing in common. In the wake of them, nothing is ever the same again. There’s a small community of Franciscans living on the top of Mount Tabor, the traditional site of the transfiguration. There used to be a friar there, who was very welcoming to pilgrims. I recall chatting with him — and after a while, noticing that, nestling in the hood of his habit, was a single sparrow.

That sight shifted permanently my perception of our kinship with the creatures, great and small, with whom we share a home. That’s what transfigurations do — change our minds for good. So it is here.

The story of the transfiguration is of the breaching of the boundary between this world and another, as is the story of the resurrection, which it anticipates. The difference between this story and other tales of the interface of different worlds — Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials comes to mind — is that this time the breach is not mended.

Of course, the mountain-top vision fades, and the witnesses must return to the world as ordinarily experienced. And we know that what Peter, James, and John will encounter in the valley below will be distressing and humiliating. Nevertheless, their return journey is not across a boundary that is reinstated once they’re back. They’ve had a taste of heaven, but afterwards it’s not just down to earth for all the failures that will follow. The frontier has dissolved. The world where Christ reigns in glory has elided with their own, the world where, for a little longer, that reign is bitterly contested. A light has shone that shall not be put out.

So what does it all mean? We must be careful not to settle too contentedly for the familiar explanations. Moses and the Elijah are there — and then they’re gone. So the age of the law and the prophets is over. True: the tents they want to pitch recall the wilderness years when Israel travelled lighter and closer to God. True: a cloud overshadowed them, the cloud that in the Bible is not a sign of rain, but of the glory of God. So here is a disclosure of who Jesus is. True: the dazzling appearance of Jesus and the voice from above, echoing what was said of him at his baptism, both confirm that in him God is with us. True.

And yet, and yet — do we really know what is going on here any better than Peter, who, like the others, was terrified, and who "did not know what to say"? There is deep wisdom in Peter’s "I do not know," as much perhaps as there was — turn back a page — in his more confident confession at Caesarea Philippi: "You are the Messiah" (Mark 8.29). Peter will discover the meaning of what he has witnessed only as he perseveres in discipleship.

As for Peter, James, and John, so for us: by our imaginative engagement with this story, the familiar boundaries between the apparent and the transcendent are breached, and a better world has begun to merge with ours. If our engagement with the story is at all serious, we, too, with Peter, will not know what to say — for all the clever connections we make. Only as we follow will we find out.

The account of the transfiguration contains one all-important imperative: "Hear him." In the language of the Bible, the command to hear is always the order to obey. There is no route to understanding the transfiguration, or any other Christian mystery, which bypasses the next thing to be done.

A footnote: let’s celebrate the transfiguration this Sunday — or indeed on any day in the year, so long as it is not the official feast of the Transfiguration. Pope Callistus III designated 6 August as the feast of the Transfiguration. He thought it would be a wonderful way for the universal Church to celebrate the butchery of thousands of "infidel" Turks on the 6 August 1456 at the siege of Belgrade.


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