On the second Sunday in Lent each year, one of the options for the Gospel reading is the “Transfiguration” (in Mark’s Gospel it is chapter 9, verses 2–9). Peter, James and John see Jesus transformed before them into a shining being of light. I wonder if you’ve ever had a mountain-top experience like Peter, James and John? The Transfiguration is a remarkable part of our tradition. Peter and the two brothers join Jesus in climbing a mountain together. Off they stride, bound together by their youth (we often forget that they were all relatively young, except perhaps for Peter), their strength, and their love for one another. There, on the mountain-top, which itself was such a symbolic place for the Jewish people, Jesus is transfigured before them. They see a vision of him standing there, shining like the sun, joined by Moses and Elijah, two key figures in Israel’s history. And as a part of this mystical experience they hear God say to them, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Overcome with fear they fall to the ground.
This is an extraordinarily powerful religious experience for the three men, because Jesus’ true nature is revealed to them. They realise that he reflects God’s glory. They realise that he knows God, that he has seen God, just like Moses and Elijah had, in their mountain-top experiences. Peter, James and John also realise something else: Jesus is God’s son. In fact, Peter already knew this: his Confession of Jesus as the Son of God occurs just before the Transfiguration, but this confirms it. He really knows it now.
It’s a little bit like when I saw the York Minster for the first time, the cathedral which I showed the students in the Chapel service in Memorial Hall a week or so ago. From photographs and television, I already knew what much of it looked like, but it’s not quite the same as actually standing in that massive building and enjoying it. This is Peter’s experience; he already knows that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, but this mountain-top experience confirms it powerfully; it really brings it home to him.
Unsurprisingly Peter wants the moment to last. When the three disciples see Jesus transfigured, and when they see him joined by Moses and Elijah, these two colossal figures of Jewish history, Peter doesn’t want the moment to end. “Lord, it is good for us to be hear; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter would stay there for a long time, enjoying the experience, catching some of the light as it reflects off Jesus’ radiant face. If we’re honest, many of us are like that. We want to stay in that moment of peace, of knowing God: those blessed times when we feel at home and everything is wonderful. If we’re alert to them, if we’re awake to them, it’s surprising how often those moments do occur – not usually with the same kind of intensity that the three disciples experience on the mountain-top – but moments of grace nonetheless, when we are aware of God’s presence, when we know our place in the world.
I’ve had quite a few of these moments in my life, some more intense than others. These kinds of moments inspire us to live life to the full. I know the date of one such moment: 25 September 2000. I know exactly where I was; in my lounge room, yelling at the TV, watching Cathy Freeman come from behind to win the 400-metre race at the Sydney Olympics. What an extraordinary experience it was, even in the comfort of my lounge room. A good friend of mine was actually at the race and he reported that the atmosphere was electric!
Sadly, such mountain-top experiences can’t last forever. Although the mountain-top experiences inspire and refresh us, although they renew us in spirit, nevertheless with Peter and James and John we do need to come down and join Jesus back on the plain, and, without wavering, resolutely walk the way of the cross.
The Reverend Dr Theo McCall, School Chaplain