Tents and Transfiguration
“It is good for us to be here” (Lk 9.33)
Given recent news, you might question whether now is a good time for us be up the mountain or the altar steps contemplating divine light.
Yet Peter, James and John were no strangers to persecution themselves, and still they thought that the glory of God they saw in Jesus was invaluable: worth their lives, in the end.
This is because they knew what they saw, from their own Jewish tradition. From 16 October this year, if you go into Hendon, you will see tents in many people’s gardens, out for the Feast of Tabernacles or Sukkoth, where the Jewish people will camp for a week in memory of God’s command to them to set up tents in the desert during the Exodus. The “roughly eight days” that Luke mentions at the beginning of his account of the Transfiguration (Lk 9.28) was that very week of the Feast of Tabernacles. This is why Peter offers to set up tents for Moses and Elijah, too, when he sees them with Jesus. They are at the final day of the Feast, and Peter sees Jesus bringing it to a dramatic culmination. But he knows, too, that the Feast of Tabernacles is not just the remembrance of a past event, but like all Jewish festivals, foreshadows also a hope for the future: in this case, the future dwelling of the just in God. When Moses and Elijah vanish in the cloud, Peter knows that the need for tents is over: in Christ, the promise has been fulfilled. The Kingdom is revealed, here and now.
The disciples also know the spiritual significance of mountains, first from their own experience with Jesus: the mountains of his temptation, his Beatitudes, his frequent retreats of prayer. They will come to know the mountains of his agony, Crucifixion and Ascension too, in due course. But they know also the mountains of Horeb, Sinai and Moriah. They know of Moses ascending to behold God’s glory on Sinai, and the cloud covering it for six days (Ex 24.16). They know of the cloud and the pillar of fire leading their people to the promised land. And they know of Isaiah’s vision of God’s Glory, his kabod, in the heavenly Temple (Isa 6.1-4). Now they see in Christ that selfsame glory, the glory which belongs to God alone. Jesus’ face changes - Matthew says it “shone like the sun” (Mt 17.2) - and his clothes become whiter than anyone could bleach them, according to Mark (Mk 9.2-3). And with the glory comes that same cloud of God’s presence, the Shekinah, which led their people to freedom. That freedom is now theirs.
When Peter, James and John hear the conversation between their Lord, Moses and Elijah, their Jewish tradition again informs them of its meaning. Jesus talks about his “departure,” or in Luke’s native Greek, his “Exodus.” The Jewish people’s ancient journey is to continue through a new desert, and the destination is Jerusalem, where it shall be fulfilled. Fulfilled, note, not replaced or destroyed: Christ is the fulfilment of the Law represented by Moses and the prophets represented by Elijah, not their replacement or destruction. The new promise fulfils and completes the old without taking anything away from it, and it is the same promise: namely, that the just may dwell forever in God’s glory, in the freedom of the Kingdom.
Make no mistake, that vision of glory is the treasure beyond all price to which true religion aspires; and it is not to be sought only in times of plenty. The fourth century St Gregory of Nazianzus, in what is now Turkey, delivered an improptu homily during a dreadful cattle plague and drought in which he made it clear that our end is to see “the ineffable light” and “contemplate the holy and majestic Trinity that shines clearly and brightly and unites itself wholly to the entire soul. This alone” he said, “I take to be the kingdom of heaven.” (Or 16.9) He takes the theme from St Paul, who wrote to the Corinthians:
“It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’
(2 Cor 4.3-6)
This sense of seeking the light, the vision, the beauty of God, which are all contained in that one word “glory,” and finding in it the source of knowledge or wisdom, has been called the core of St Paul’s theology. You might well expect it to be so, seeing as it was just such a vision of light that thrust him to his knees on the Damascus road and brought him to Christ (as, I might add, it was for me). St John too puts the indwelling of God’s glory right at the foundation of our faith in the Prologue to his Gospel (1.14), where he says that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt (literally, “set his tent”) among us, and we beheld his glory.” The glory of God is fundamental to the Christian story, in its Jewish origins, the birth of our Saviour and, foreshadowed in the Transfiguration, at his glorious Ascension; so, it should be fundamental to our story, too, that our future may be the consummation of Christ’s past.
And yet in the contemplation of ancient history and a projected future, we risk losing sight of the present, which brings us back to Peter’s words. Is it “good to be here,” now? Or to make an alternative translation of Luke’s Greek word kalos, is it “beautiful” to be here?
Well, that depends on how we are looking, what eyes we are using. You remember, probably from a wedding, how St Paul says to the Corinthians (1 Cor 13.12), “now we see in a mirror dimly” (or, in the King James, “a glass darkly”), “but then we shall see face to face.” We have the mirror. The mirror is Christ. In him, the glory of God is reflected, and if we look at the world through this glass, we can see that glory shining already among us. To be sure, we will see it perfectly only when our own transfiguration is complete; but for now, we can see it and moreover reflect it on the world around us, however ugly it may be.
That, after all, is what Peter, James and John had to do; because what they did not know was that their Exodus to glory would take them through the Red Sea of Christ’s Passion. They did not know that God’s glory would evermore, in Pope Benedict’s words, “bear the mark of Jesus’s wounds.” Yet this is what they would face when they went back down the mountain, and it is what we of the Church must all face as we descend from the heights of prayer into the missionary theatre of the world. Without suffering, there is no glory. Glory for the Apostles, in the words of Paul, meant being ‘pressed in on every side, yet not crushed, perplexed yet not to despair, persecuted yet not forsaken, smitten down yet not destroyed, always bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh’ (2 Cor 4.8-10). As our brethren continue to face persecution, we should not expect any less for ourselves in this world.
And yet: we must never forget to keep going back up the mountain, to withdraw for the same reason Jesus did. He went up the mountain to pray; and if we really go apart and devote ourselves to seeing the glory of God, then, to quote Archbishop Michael Ramsey, “he is at hand to change us by his Spirit into the same image from glory to glory.” (CEA 156-60) The pursuit of God’s glory is not a mystical panacea, but the gospel of Transfiguration, changing the world from glory into glory, a revealing of the world in Christ’s light which conquers because it convinces us enough to say, truly, even in this world, “it is good, it is beautiful, for us to be here.”