Sunday 6 August 2023 Transfiguration of Our Lord
Luminosity in Darkness
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; 2 Peter 1:16-19; Matthew 17:1-9
Context: the suburban parish community the author belongs to; a lively mix of elderly Catholics and young families
Aim: to remind hearers that being illuminated by Christ and his love does not spare us from suffering; it prepares us for it
If any of you are thinking, ‘I think I heard this Gospel not so long ago’, you are right. It was proclaimed to us on the Second Sunday of Lent. However, the Church also observes the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord every year on 6 August which, as it happens, falls on a Sunday this year.
The traditional site of the Transfiguration is Mount Tabor in Galilee. It isn’t part of a mountain range, like the Pennines or the Peaks, but a single, round, high mound of earth that stands out amidst low hills and shallow valleys. The scene is really quite magnificent as you approach it, and one can be forgiven for thinking: ‘Of course, how can the Transfiguration have taken place anywhere less?’ Some Scripture scholars, however, argue that the Transfiguration took place on Mount Hermon because immediately before the Transfiguration happened, Matthew, Mark and Luke place Jesus and his disciples in the far north of Galilee at Caesarea Philippi, much closer to that dramatic peak.
But none of the evangelists names the place, telling us only that Jesus took Peter, James, and John to a high mountain. And perhaps that’s where our focus should turn – to the simple fact that Jesus took his inner circle up a mountain – because for the Jewish people, elevated places were closely associated with divine presence. High places were seen as ‘closer to heaven’ and, therefore, nearer to God, places where spectacular things could happen. And here, on a high mountain, Jesus is transfigured.
His divinity shines forth. But for what purpose? To dazzle his disciples with his divine presence? No, it was to strengthen them and prepare them for what would follow: Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. In the Transfiguration, Jesus gives his disciples the experience of light, but this light becomes the backdrop to the darkness and suffering yet to come.
That’s what we are commemorating today: the light that is the glory of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor set against the backdrop of sorrow and suffering in Calvary. And if we put the story of Mount Tabor side-by-side with the story of Calvary, there are some really interesting ‘parallels of contrasts’ that emerge and are worth noting:
On Mount Tabor Jesus is revealed in glory; on Calvary, he is revealed in a shameful death on the cross. On Tabor, a glowing cloud overshadows everything; on Calvary, darkness descends over all the land. On Tabor, his clothes become a dazzling white; on Calvary, his clothes are torn from him and gambled away by soldiers. Jesus is flanked by Moses and Elijah on Mount Tabor, the great Law-giver and the greatest Prophet of Israel; on Calvary he is flanked by two thieves who don’t keep the law. On Tabor, Peter is inspired by the Divine; on Calvary, he is nowhere to be found. On Tabor, God’s resounding voice is heard saying: ‘This is My Beloved Son’; on Calvary, a Centurion whispers in awe: ‘This truly is the Son of God’.
So, in an interesting sequence of contrasts, Tabor points to Calvary, and Calvary to Tabor. They direct us to look from one to the other and reveal to us that glory is to be found on the cross, and the cross triumphs in glory. Jesus reveals from the cross what we preview today in the Transfiguration.
In contrast too, is the silence of the Fourth Gospel about the Transfiguration. While the Synoptic Gospels inform us of the luminous glory glimpsed on Mount Tabor, for John, God’s glory shone at its brightest and with the greatest love ever known, in the sorrowful darkness of the crucifixion. The Second Letter of Peter reflects on the Apostle’s experience on Mount Tabor: ‘You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place until the day dawns and morning star rises in your hearts’ (2 Peter 1:19); because this radiant light from Christ has the ability both to attract us who behold it and in turn, to illuminate us, just like Moses who ‘as he came down from the mountain, did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God’ (Exodus 34:29-35).
Exposure to God’s light make us radiate some of that same light. When Jesus calls us to be ‘the light of the world’ (Matthew 5:14), it is his light that we are called to radiate and not our own. Jesus’ radiance shares with us the light of heaven, a light which lures us and animates us, in the hope of our own transfiguration in him. But the implications for us are clear. Being illuminated by Christ, bathing in his love, does not spare us from suffering; it prepares us for it.
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