Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Sunday next before Lent 2021
For St Peter it doesn’t get much better than Moses and Elijah.
The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Precentor
Sunday, 14th February 2021 at 11.15 AM
‘Let us make three dwellings’, said Peter, ‘one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’
This is classic Peter—our glorious patron—passionate, impetuous, and more than a little ‘de trop.’ Perhaps we should forgive his excitement, after all he has just seen two of the greatest heroes of his race alongside the man he has just acclaimed as the Messiah.
For St Peter it doesn’t get much better than Moses and Elijah. It would be like me seeing the Dean talking to Augustine of Hippo and Francis of Assisi—or seeing Her Majesty The Queen in conversation with Edward the Confessor and William Shakespeare—or Dame Shirley Bassey sharing notes with Nina Simone and Mama Cass (let’s stop there, shall we?!). I too might be inclined to get a little overwrought, and carried away with a desire to enshrine this moment; to hold on to it.
You can imagine that those who tried to describe the Transfiguration, and the ones who tried to write it down, struggled to encapsulate what was going on. There is something pleasingly and appropriately lame about the description of Jesus’ clothing—dazzling white, such as no-one on earth could bleach them—like a hackneyed advert for soap powder. Words singularly fail to describe this unearthly occurrence; they fall short, as indeed they should in the face of divine glory.
There is something dream-like about this event—the dazzling, the appearing of heroic figures from the past, the terror, the cloud, the voice - and then, as if on awakening, just Jesus. Just like a dream, it must have been hard to grasp this event, leaving you to wonder whether you’d remembered it correctly. But of course it wasn’t a dream. It was a vision, a glimpse of a greater reality.
Peter’s suggestion to build three dwellings wasn’t just a random, over-enthusiastic response to an extraordinary experience. It has a deeper resonance. The type of dwelling he suggests is like the temporary shelters, or booths, that are constructed for the harvest festival of Sukkot. Let’s keep the festival here, Peter seems to be saying, we’ll build the booths for you, for Moses and Elijah—this will be the most amazing harvest festival ever! But there will be no private celebrations on the mountain-top. This event, this experience, is not to be understood in isolation, nor held on to for its own sake. They are instructed not to tell anyone about it until after the resurrection—after the suffering that Jesus predicted a few verses earlier in Mark’s gospel. Peter, James and John are witnesses who must keep their counsel until the time when this event can be properly understood, put into proper context—the context of the suffering, death and resurrection of the Son of Man.
In eastern orthodoxy the Transfiguration, the revealing of Christ’s divine glory before his passion, is here to impress upon us that Jesus takes on his suffering voluntarily, in the fullness of his divine freedom. It is an indication of his great love for humanity that, though demonstrably divine, he freely chooses to suffer and die for them; for us. It brings to mind the hymn that St Paul quotes in the letter to the Philippians that ‘though he was in the form of God (he) did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself… and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.’ The Transfiguration is the height from which he will descend, into suffering, into death, even to the lowest pit, for the sake of love; in the absolute freedom which is obedience to the Father’s will; ‘whose service is perfect freedom’ in the words of the aforementioned St Augustine.
The Mount of Transfiguration is a marker, then, the beginning of a journey, but it more than hints at the destination. When we think of the hill of Calvary we are meant to think that this, even this, is the kind of place where we might expect to see the glory of God. The Transfiguration is a preview of the glory of the risen Christ—the journey’s fulfilment; it can only be properly interpreted in Easter light. The glory of God that Peter, James and John beheld on the mountain turns out to be not just glory for its own sake, but glory for our sake—for the sake of suffering mortals—a promise that he shares our mortality so that we might be lifted into his immortal glory.
The Transfiguration is itself a story of ups and downs, prefiguring the significant ups and downs to come, and we can fully understand Peter’s desire to stay on the mountain and sustain a spiritual high. The experience of pandemic has been one where highs and lows can come within a single news broadcast; it has been hard to keep on a level, and for many, the lows have been and continue to be extremely low indeed.
Jesus Christ, we are promised, is the same yesterday, today and for ever. It is the same Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration as we find on the Cross of Calvary, as is laid in the garden tomb—the same glory is wherever he is. That glory may be well-hidden in some places; our eyes, our spirits may be too down-cast to perceive it, but the story from Transfiguration to Resurrection promises us that there is no place where he is not; no place his glory cannot seek out and transform.
Peter didn’t have it all wrong when he wanted to build those dwellings for Jesus, for Elijah and for Moses. Dwelling, making festival, with Christ and his Saints is what we are called to, and it is what every Eucharist is all about. But while we are in this life, subject to time and change, our moments on the mountain top will be limited and our visions of glory will be fleeting—we will need to trust that his glory is in those places where we don’t want to be, and that we wouldn’t wish on anyone else.
The Transfiguration is one of the more common themes in eastern iconography, and for good reason. Despite its strangeness, and the difficulty of describing it without sounding silly, the Transfiguration is a scene that we do well to keep in mind, to keep to hand as it were, as we prepare ourselves for another Lent, another Holy Week, another Easter; as we plod our weary way through the first third of this year. The glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ is the constant, whether or not we see it; whether or not we see it reflected in ourselves or in the faces of others; whether or not we see it on mountain tops or within the restrictions of our four walls—the glory is there, here, promised.
In the final analysis, Peter did not need to build three dwellings on the mountain-top because, through the resurrection of Jesus and the sending of the Spirit he would become a dwelling place for the glory of God; and through Christ and by the Spirit we, who shelter under his patronage in the Collegiate Church of St Peter in Westminster, we too might shine to the glory of God the Father.