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Sunday next before Lent

17 February 2023

Exodus 24.12-end; Psalm 2 or Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1.16-end; Matthew 17.1-9

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ONE word sums up this Sunday’s readings, and the aim of the Lenten journey that we are preparing — and even the aftermath of Lent and Passiontide, when we undergo spiritual metamorphosis, from sluggish caterpillars into dazzling butterflies, freed from the cold constraints of earth.

Transfiguration. As well as Matthew, Mark and Luke tell the story. Reflecting on why John does not record it, I concluded that he transfigured the transfiguration — into Jesus, the light of the world. He does the same thing, after all, with Jesus the living bread, to expound the eucharist. Perhaps he was reluctant to commit the most precious details of the gospel story to writing, where anyone could access them.

The transfiguration has been the traditional Gospel for the Sunday before Lent for centuries. It is a majestic word for a majestic reality: the moment when the veil of human mortality is drawn aside. Then we see not only Christ, but also Moses and Elijah (who were once “ordinary” human beings like the witnessing disciples), as they appear in heavenly glory.

This is how we believe and trust that we also shall one day be. Lent will encourage us to immerse ourselves more fully in the meaning of “transfiguration”; so there is work to be done. It requires a change of appearance, we know. But it will be a change of outer appearance which happens only because it is reflecting a new inner reality.

The first surviving use of the Latin word transfiguratio comes from a Roman polymath, Pliny the Elder. Such was his fascination with the natural world that he lost track of time and space while investigating the eruption of Vesuvius. That put an end, in AD 79, to his earthly existence, but not before he found time to say that “There are problems concerning belief in an after-life . . . neither body nor mind possesses any sensation after death, any more than it did before birth — but vanity fabricates for itself a life lasting even into death, sometimes bestowing on the soul immortality, sometimes transfiguration.”

He is scornful of the idea of transfiguration as “making a god of one who has already ceased even to be human”.

Transfiguratio (the Greek equivalent is metamorphosis) is not always associated with loveliness or divinity. Pliny applied it to lycanthropy, and the Romans found werewolves quite as terrifying as we do. This confirms that it is not the label that adds exaltation to the event, but vice versa.

In Matthew’s Greek, Jesus’s clothing is “white like light”, giving a mystical feel; for sunlight is a powerful bleaching agent, whitening wherever its rays may reach. Matthew has edited out Mark’s more down-to-earth observation that the whiteness was “such as no one on earth could bleach them”: readers in earlier centuries would have known that fullers used urine as a principal bleaching agent. This is not the only occasion when we find Matthew drawn to the spiritual take on a down-to-earth Gospel.

In October 2002, I had to absorb a new aspect of the transfiguration, when Pope John Paul II added a new set of prayers, the luminous mysteries (or “mysteries of light”), to the traditional prayer known as the rosary. Working my way through the five meditations, from Christ’s baptism, the wedding at Cana, and the ministry of healing and teaching to get to the transfiguration (the last of the five is the eucharist), feels like a Lenten pilgrimage every time I undertake it: not in a spirit of miserable self-denial, but in purity and clarity — a simplicity that embodies gospel truth. It is like an altar dressed in Lenten array, a visible embodiment of what we preach.

Some ultra-sceptical exegetes deny that the transfiguration happened in Jesus’s lifetime. They argue that it is a post-resurrection appearance transplanted to a period before the Passion. If this were true (the evidence is not convincing), then what we have would be a free-floating chunk of Gospel, lacking a historical context to add depth to its message. The woman caught in adultery is a true example of this type (John 8.1-11).

Thankfully, we are not obliged to follow the ultra-sceptical line. The transfiguration has won our trust as a glimpse of eternity, a “luminous mystery”; for it reveals in the adult Jesus (just as star and angels did for the infant) divine glory at home and at work in our world.

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