One of the really interesting things about being an Anglican priest, especially working as a school chaplain, is the challenge to read and interpret interesting stories from the Bible for the people of the 21st century. How do you make sense of some of the readings that seem a bit unbelievable? Are the events they describe true? More on that in a moment!
Friday 6 August, was the Feast of the Transfiguration in our Church’s calendar of liturgical events for the year. Jesus, takes his most trusted disciples, Peter (our patron saint, of course) and the two brothers, James and John, and climbs a mountain (Mark 9: 2–8).
When I try and picture this event, in the way that I often try and imagine particular scenes from the Bible, especially the ones involving Jesus, I often imagine the two brothers racing each other up the mountain, turning it into a competition, as brothers like to do. Peter, traditionally thought to have been a bit older than some of the other disciples, is perhaps struggling a bit; and then there’s Jesus. When I imagine what Jesus, the historical man, was like, I picture someone made strong by his work as a carpenter; he was used to physical work. He leads the others up the mountain, refusing to lose any ground to the two brothers!
There, on the mountain top, the three disciples have a mountain-top experience, as the expression now goes. The experience of the three disciples calls to mind two other, famous mountain-top experiences in the Bible: Elijah encountering God in the stillness (1 Kings 19: 8–13) and, naturally, Moses meeting God on Mount Sinai and receiving the law, including the 10 commandments (Exodus 34).
Peter, James and John experience Jesus in shining white clothes, brighter than anyone on earth could bleach them. They also see the two famous leaders, Elijah and Moses, both great prophets and, in the case of Moses, also representing the law of the people of Israel.
So, to my question, “Was it real?” Did Peter, James and John really see Jesus transfigured before them? Well, our tradition is that Mark’s account of the events in the Gospel that bears his name was based on Peter’s memory of events. Mark’s Gospel was finally compiled in approximately 50 AD, roughly 20 years after the events being recounted. So, again according to our tradition, we have Peter’s account of the events, lending weight to the argument that we are talking about historical events.
More importantly, though, I think it’s fair to say that Peter, James and John had what we would now term quite specifically a religious experience. Fixating on whether Jesus’ appearance physically changed actually misses the whole point of the story. Peter, James and John had an experience of the divine. They experienced something special. That experience is something they took with them as they went back to their normal lives. The memory of the experience kept them going through the tough times, which were about to occur.
I wonder if you have had transformative experiences, the memory of which keeps you going? One of my relatively recent, favourite memories comes from the July holidays last year, when Mrs McCall and I visited Melrose in our state’s mid-north and spent one of our days there climbing Mt Remarkable. I still remember that day like it were yesterday.
What keeps you going? We have just held “Blue week” as a school. Memories can be really important for our mental health! The memory of good times can be more than just a memory – it can give us strength in the present. Little rituals, little acts of memory, can help us recall the good times, or even simply one favourite event, and we can use those rituals to get through the tougher times.
The Eucharist (Holy Communion) is precisely that kind of thing. We remember Jesus. Obviously, we were not physically present at the Last Supper, just as we were not physically present with the three disciples on the mountain top at Jesus’ Transfiguration. Yet, the celebration of the Eucharist helps us remember (in the fullest Jewish sense of memory) the special event of the Last Supper. We trust the tradition of the Church. We trust that something special is happening. The ritual keeps us going.
Mrs McCall and I are starting a bit of a ritual in climbing mountains too. Obviously we’re not going to climb up the side of Mt Remarkable every weekend or every month, but we have decided to go for regular bush walks. The views won’t always be as spectacular. The challenge won’t always be as hard, but the little ritual of going for a walk will keep us going in a spiritual sense.
What are your little rituals? Discover those, and you will discover a spiritual strength you didn’t realise you had.
The Reverend Dr Theo McCall