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Readings: Sunday next before Lent

06 February 2015

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

Almighty Father, whose Son was revealed in majesty before he suffered death upon the cross:give us grace to perceive his glory, that we may be strengthened to suffer with him and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

IF YOU were to choose a reading to get you through Lent - a reading full of hope and promise, and yet not denying the reality of the Passion and crucifixion - then the story of the transfiguration would surely be a very strong contender. Bishop Kenneth Stevenson insisted that its place in the lectionary at this point in the year is "not as a kind of pre-packaged reward in advance, in order to soften the pain". It is there to teach us that those desolating events and a vision of glory "belong together".* The transfiguration is about Jesus, and about his identity as the Messiah and Son of God. It is a foretaste of the eternal glory that is to come. The appearance of Moses and Elijah on the mountain points to God's faithfulness in speaking though the Law and the prophets. The lone figure of Jesus as they vanish is an emblem of the way God speaks now, through the Son (Mark 9.7; see also Hebrews 1.1-3).

We ponder this event with the assistance of forms of interpretation of the person and ministry of Jesus which begin very early in the Christian tradition. One example is 2 Corinthians 4.3-6. Others are provided in last week's readings from Colossians 1.15-20 and John 1.1-14. For those who were actually present at the time, there was no such assistance, and frightened people can say very silly things - things they would not wish to be remembered on later occasions. I have heard myself offer another cup of tea to a scholar of whom I was much in awe, while struggling internally to think of a profound theological question. All that Peter can summon up, when confronted by the shining unearthliness of his master, is a proposal to build three dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (Mark 9.5). Among the Synoptic Gospel-writers, only Mark understands the humanity of this embarrassing utterance. His Peter "did not know what to say, for they were terrified" (Mark 9.6). The obvious thing was to do something practical, though the suggested action barely conceals a longing to stop time altogether.

Did the disciples fear that Jesus would be suddenly taken from them? It would be the natural conclusion, given the characters who were present. They knew that Moses did not accompany his people into the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 3.23-28; Deuteronomy 34; Joshua 1.1-3), and that Elijah was caught up into heaven before Elisha could make any formal parting speech (2 Kings 2.11-12). Once again, Bishop Stevenson is illuminating. Peter wishes to capture a "magic moment". Yet, without realising it, he is entering something much more significant. Together with James and John, he is "contemplating a new way of God's presence with his people. . . . Jesus is no longer someone to be looked back to".

The first glimmer of this different knowledge and different way of being comes very soon after the event. "As they were coming down the mountain, [Jesus] ordered them to tell no one what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean" (Mark 9.9-11). A new responsibility is now handed to the disciples; and the knowledge of Jesus which they are still digesting must be kept secret, lest it be misused as further events unfold and move inexorably towards trial and crucifixion. To speak prematurely of the transfiguration would have had much the same effect on public understanding of the resurrection as explaining an illusion.

It is not clear that Paul knew of the transfiguration, and in his discussion of "the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" he contrasts the Old and New Covenants (Exodus 34.29-35; 2 Corinthians 4.6). If he has learned anything from eyewitnesses, it is the strong warning that emerges from Mark's narrative: the vision of Christ's glory is not about the disciples, or indeed about us. It is not a story to be peddled about for self-glorification (2 Corinthians 4.5), but a piece of testimony to be offered at the proper time - an appropriate call to restraint and judgement as we enter the discipline of Lent.

*Kenneth W. Stevenson,Rooted in Detachment: Living the transfiguration (DLT, 2007)

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