Feb 14th 2021
Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church
The Last Sunday Before Lent
14 February 2021
“When they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.”
The story of Jesus’ Transfiguration, as related to us this morning by the Gospel of Mark, begins in isolation and aloneness. Our Lord, having made his way from village to village across ancient Galilee preaching the Good News of the Kingdom to any who would listen, suddenly and abruptly leaves behind the multitudes and the hubbub of everyday life and, so to speak, heads for the hills with his favoured disciples in tow, Peter, James, and John. He takes them, we are told, “apart, by themselves,” to a “high mountain.”
And almost needless to say, mountaintops by their very nature are places distant and unapproachable, places apart. By the way, scholars have for centuries tried to identify the “high mountain” of Mark’s narrative but without success. Some say it must have been the mighty Mount Hermon of northern Israel. Others prefer the more modest Mount Tabor, where to this day -- at least in the good times -- there is a flourishing Transfiguration tourist trade, making it nowadays alas hardly a place apart.
But if a “high mountain” is a place relatively inaccessible to all but the physically fittest, it is also a site of spiritual encounter with the numinous and ineffable, with that which is very nearly beyond our human comprehension. Think of Mount Sinai or the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, for instance. Even today, we gaze in awe upon the splendour and majesty of, say, the Alpine peaks, not all that far from our great low-lying Hungarian plain. And, from mountain peaks we contemplate our small place in the grand scheme of things here below.
For the ancient world, a mountain was at once both a sort of natural fortress -- like Masada for instance -- and at the same time a destination nearer the heavens, apart and away from the everyday but redolent as well of the sovereignty and majesty of the divine, of higher powers. And, so our Lord ascends the mountain with his disciples and is there transfigured before them. The story of the Transfiguration by the way is told in all three of the so-called Synoptic Gospels -- Mathew, Mark, and Luke -- and in each telling it occurs very nearly at the centre or mid-pint of our Lord’s earthly ministry. The journey to the mountaintop -- wherever it might have been -- becomes a kind of turning-point in Jesus’ life from which there will be no turning back.
Short verses before today’s narrative in the Gospel of Mark, keep in mind, Peter had almost matter-of-factly proclaimed Jesus as the “Messiah,” in response to our Lord’s question about his own identity, “Who do you say that I am?”. Now, in the company of his most trusted and beloved of disciples, our Lord is transfigured, and the truth behind that first credo or confession of Peter is realised, and Christ’s true nature becomes at last manifestly apparent at this place set apart.
Yet breaking this awesome mountaintop isolation of our Lord and the disciples is the sudden appearance of Elijah and Moses, arguably the greatest of ancient Israel’s prophets and law-givers. Moses is of course all too familiar, as we know, with mountains and the giving of the law at Sinai. And Elijah, as we heard moments ago in our second reading, ascends the heavens in a chariot of fire. Never having died a natural death -- according to legend at least -- Elijah too knows something of the eternal Kingdom of which Jesus would later preach. Their appearance with our Lord connects past, present, and future. It brings the eternal into the here and now.
Swiftly enough, that isolated mountaintop is getting crowded. Peter -- perhaps not surprisingly for one later to be considered the first pope -- immediately wants to institutionalise the encounter with these ethereal figures by constructing three dwellings of some sort. Grand churches perhaps…? But the point of the Transfiguration, if it is anything, is that the transfigured body of Christ is now itself the new temple. It is for us the Church. Still, it is no wonder that Peter should have been at a loss for words and “not know what to say.” Would you know what to say in such circumstances? Would I…?
And then, in a kind of mystical denouement, a voice comes to the disciples from the clouds and proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved.” This is of course essentially the same voice and message which came to our Lord’s ears alone at his Baptism and at the very beginning of his mission and ministry, when he heard said to him, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” The voice, presumably that of the Father, confirms at the Transfiguration what Peter perhaps had only intuited. This is indeed the Messiah. Or as the Centurion will say at Calvary, “This man was God’s Son.” For, Calvary is now where our Lord is headed.
But if the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration begins in isolation and aloneness, so it also ends. For, “suddenly, when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore.” Only Jesus. And he orders them to tell no one of what they had experienced until after he has risen. And they do as they are told. They keep it to themselves. What has been revealed to them is now hidden in plain sight.
They saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.
As human beings and essentially social creatures, we all have a kind of love-hate relationship with aloneness and isolation; not to mention with the mundane and the sublime. It is a commonplace to suggest that the so-called extroverts among us find their psychic centre in crowds; while introverts find their meaning in, well, being alone. But this is facile. Life is much more complicated than that, as the enforced seclusion of pandemic and lockdown has been teaching all of us. We have, we hope, learned anew just how precious time is, just how precious we are to each other.
And we have, if we are smart, also learned the lesson of the Transfiguration. For, if the Transfiguration reveals a deeper truth about the very nature of the Christ, it also reveals the deeper truth about ourselves; that in Christ, we are never alone. In Christ, we have become part of his mystical and transformed presence in this world. We have become Church. Even in our self-isolation and quarantines. What was made manifest to the disciples in their mountaintop experience can become our lived experience too.
“They saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.” Like the disciples at the Mount of Transfiguration, we too must look around and see Jesus, see our Lord leading us as he led the disciples. See “only Jesus.” And in seeing Jesus, see the Church. Like the disciples, we are never alone and isolated, after all.