The Transfiguration

Mountain tops appear regularly in the Bible. They are places were encounters with God happen. Sometimes people are instructed to go up them and there they discover God, other times people discover God there by seeming chance. The Transfiguration is a bit of a mixture of both.

Jesus asks three of his disciples to accompany him. There is no indication that they knew where they were going. Maybe they thought once more Jesus wanted to go and pray away from all those who bayed to see him, to touch him, to be healed by him, even to try and trick him.

What is clear however is this time was very different from any other. I find myself with so many unanswered questions. How long did the disciples take to realise it was Moses and Elijah they were also seeing? Did they think they were dreaming or hallucinating? Could they hear what was being said? If so, why is that not recorded? Why after feeling tired and not falling asleep did they ever fall asleep in Gethsemane?

Regardless of all my questions it was an incredible sight that the disciples witnessed of course they wanted to stay. However transfiguration wasn’t a permeant state even for Jesus. This glimpse of glory was to provide comfort and strength for what lay ahead, not only for Jesus but also for Peter, James and John.

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
the earth, and every common sight,
to me did seem
apparell'd in celestial light.

William Wordsworth, ‘Ode; Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.’

The Transfiguration can be celebrated at two alternative times in the Christian Year. On the 8th of August, or at the end of Epiphany. Celebrated at the end of Epiphany, as we do at St Paul and St John the Evangelist highlights the pinnacle of Emmanuel, God with us, coming in total glory and that glory being seen and recognised by a host of different people who you might expect or not expect to recognise it.

In some of the Eastern Orthodox Churches the feast of the Transfiguration is also known as Vartavarh, or rose flame. An early Armenian chornicle explains that this is because; ‘Christ opened His glory like a rose on Mount Tabor.’ The Transfiguration is seen as the full flowering of Jesus’ earth life. This is the moment when everything is clear as Wiliam Blake puts it in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

The disciples were no longer peering through cracks, trying to grasp at what Jesus was really saying or meaning, there on that mountain they knew. No wonder they didn’t want to leave.

Transfiguration of Christ by Fra Angelico