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The Transfiguration BCP

St. George’s, Hanover Square

05 August 2007 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

The Feast of the Transfiguration, which falls tomorrow, originated in Palestine in the early centuries, gradually travelled West, with strong encouragement from the Benedictines. At the Reformation, the feast remained in the calendar of the Prayer Book, but without any readings. The probable reason for this was that the feast had been imposed by Pope Callistus III, and thus was seen by the Reformers as a papal innovation. The readings have reappeared during the last century in Anglican lectionaries and the Transfiguration continues to be a major feast in both Western and Eastern Christendom.

Whilst he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was changed… Jesus’ face was changed…and his clothing became dazzling white. I have been on 3 different occasions to the traditional sight of the Transfiguration – Mount Tabor, not far from the lake known as the Sea of Galilee. The zigzag hairpin bends, taken in old and hugely long Mercedes taxis for 6, are a Disney Ride in themselves – not for the fainthearted. After the stomach-churning ride, and on arrival at the top of Mount Tabor, the appearance of many people’s countenance is more likely to turn green than white. The trip is worth it, for what you get at the top, apart from a magnificent church built on the same sight as the earlier Crusader church from the 12C, is a glorious panoramic 360 degree vista. There is a clear view in all directions. And at Tabor Jesus has a clear vision of his future as he looks forward to his passion, the cross, and resurrection glory. God’s cloud of glory covers those involved…a cloud of revelation from which the message is clear: This is my Son, the Chosen One – listen to him. What a beautiful clear view into the heart of God – covered by a cloud that reveals all. Very different from the view of God as he looks at his creation…disfigured and obscured by the mists of sin. Though God cannot fail to see the true beauty in each one of us – however hard we fog and blur his will, resist it, and go our own way.

There are two details in St. Luke’s account of the transfiguration I wish to remark upon. First to ask why the aspect of Jesus’ face shone, and secondly to discover deeper significance in the presence of Elijah and Moses.

There are many possible explanations why the face of Jesus shone. But I like to think it was because he finds what he had always been seeking – his Father’s will. He had been in the Temple as a teenager talking to the Rabbis there about it. 40 days in the desert wilderness he was seeking to know it. He had spent long nights in prayer, and now as he prayed – all became clear. It happens whilst he is praying. As a result of prayer comes his perfect choice. And the choice of Jesus is to be obedient to his Father’s will…to be the harbinger of the full revelation of divine love to be poured out in the sacrifice of Calvary. There is a tradition that the transfiguration took place forty days before the disfiguration of the crucifixion. It is therefore no coincidence that this August festival is forty days from September 14th, the time when we celebrate Holy Cross Day. Jesus on the cross, the triumph of love, is our true view of God, the unclouded picture he reveals to humanity. God’s only way…the way of suffering and disfiguration…the way of death…the way of glorious resurrection…of life.

The earliest prayer card I possess comes from a quiet day I spent as a student with the Sisters of the Love of God at Fairacres in Oxford. It speaks about a silent company of witnesses and like-minded people who were invited (just privately and spiritually) to become a Companion of the Transfiguration. The first 2 marks of a companion concern the mystery of the Transfiguration itself, but then the 3rd mark is this:

To keep 6th August also as the day when men, women and children in Hiroshima were disfigured by the exploding of the atomic bomb. The 4th mark of a companion continues: to draw strength from the hidden companionship of all others who hold themselves by faith in Jesus Christ at the heart of human suffering and redemption, and to invite others to take their life-stand there.

I never dreamt, as a student, that one day I would have 2 lovely little Japanese nieces, and would one day travel from Tokyo through Hiroshima to see my brother and his family in the south of Japan. Sadly I didn’t have time in April this year to visit the memorials in Hiroshima, but the story of the Children’s Monument I found very moving. The monument depicts a girl with outstretched hands. A bird, a crane, the Japanese symbol of long life and happiness passes above her. The whole monument refers to the story of a child victim of the atomic bomb who believed that, if only she could make 1000 paper cranes, she would recover from her terrible radiation sickness and illness. The girl didn’t live – but her story is known throughout Japan, and fresh paper cranes are constantly sent by schoolchildren from all over the country, so that they always decorate the memorial.

The other detail from St. Luke today I wish to examine a little more closely, concerns Moses and Elijah – who represent the Law and the Prophets. You could say they represent the mind and the heart as well – Moses personifying the things of the mind…and Elijah the passion of the heart. This is a generalisation I know, but the lesson is that our faith must embody both aspects. Intellectual rigour and boundaries…combined with passion and being deeply in love with God. All these elements are brought to completion in Jesus who is a new and greater Moses and a new a greater Elijah, and who fulfils once and for all God’s loving design for the universe. I wonder if you have you ever made the connection that Elijah and Moses who appear on the mount of the Transfiguration are also the same two men (in bright shining clothes )…the two men who will greet the women at the empty tomb on the first Easter morning to tell them that Jesus has risen? That they are also the same two men dressed in white (Acts 1;10) who, immediately after the Ascension of Jesus, will tell his disciples: 'this Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven'? St. Luke is quite clear about this – that the Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah, all point to Jesus, risen and glorified. And they are there at the Transfiguration, the Resurrection, and at the Ascension. Glory, glory, glory be.

On the mount of the Transfiguration the face of Jesus shines as God’s will is made manifest, and chosen obediently. God speaks in person to tell us the way we may discover his will: 'This is my beloved Son: listen to him'. In the scriptures ‘listening’ is always our present duty, here and now…here on earth…

We listen to him, we obey him…we live in hope. Whilst ‘seeing’ is something reserved for the end of time:

‘For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then…face to face; (1 Cor 13:12)’
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