The Sunday next before Lent: Transfiguration on Mount Tabor
’Tis good, Lord, to be here,
Thy beauty to behold
Where Moses and Elijah stand,
Thy messengers of old.
Fulfiller of the past,
Promise of things to be,
We hail Thy body glorified
And our redemption see.
Words from the gradual hymn, by Joseph Armitage Robinson (1858-1933).
There are two candidates for the location of the Transfiguration – this pivotal event in the gospels. The traditional location, identified by Origen in the 3rd century and St. Cyril of Jerusalem and St. Jerome in the 4th century, is Mount Tabor, and the Church of the Transfiguration can be found on top of that mountain, welcoming pilgrims today. Some of us have been there.
In the seventeenth and twentieth centuries respectively, the theologians Lightfoot and Fuller suggested that the transfiguration might have occurred on top of Mount Hermon, it being higher than Tabor and nearer to Caesarea Philippi, which is where the immediately preceding narratives take place. Nevertheless, tradition and popular piety favours Mount Tabor.
Mount Tabor is 1886 feet (575m) high, and rises above surrounding plains in a imposing manner. The Church on top of it is visible from the ground, and by the same token, commands fantastic views to any who go up it. Ascending is something of an adventure: one no longer has to climb 4,340 steps, or walk up a winding track, but can now drive up in tourist buses so far, and then there is a car parking area, from which local minibuses take visitors and pilgrims up the remaining single track road to the summit. These minibuses are a relatively recent development, until recently one had to rely on taxi drivers to race up and down the hairpin bends, one of whom, notoriously had only one arm.
Nowadays it takes perhaps a little less faith to go to the top, which is an oasis of calm, run by Italian Franciscans, who also serve an excellent cappuccino. If you are a priest, the coffee is free! The church itself is relatively modern, built between 1919 and 1924 by the Italian architect Barluzzi.
There had been a Crusader church since the 12th century, and a Byzantine one from the fifth or sixth century. The site has therefore been revered as the site of the Transfiguration for over fifteen hundred years.
Mount Tabor is a vantage point in every sense of the word. For from its summit one can not only see literally for miles, we can look backwards and forwards in time too. The story of Jesus seen on the mountain, dazzling white with Moses and Elijah in attendance occurs midway through the gospels, and the Transfiguration is a central point in Jesus’ ministry. It points us backwards to the prophecies of the Old Testament and forwards to the radical changes to be brought about in the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. They intersect and connect on the Mount of Transfiguration, and this is deliberate on the part of the gospel writers.
Astronomers tell us that as we look far out into space, we are looking further back in time. A speck of light that is a thousand light years away, has taken a thousand years to reach our eyes, so we are looking at something that occurred a thousand years ago. We are getting closer to looking back at, even recreating the experience of the Big Bang, 18.3 million years ago, or 18.3 million light years away. Space and time are connected irrevocably, and over great distances can even be considered to be inseparable.
So what were Peter and James and John seeing? Is this what Captain Kirk and his trekkies would call a time warp? On one level they were witnessing a break in space and time such that Moses and Elijah and Jesus occupied the same space and the same time. This is the stuff of Dr Who. The laws of physics and history were bent, or warped. We know that Jesus, Moses and Elijah were not contemporaries, so the witnesses were either imagining it; it was some kind of trick, or it was an experience of a new, divine dimension. Whatever it was, it was also a representation of Jesus, the new covenant, seen alongside the pillars of the old covenant: the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah). There could be no better place than a high mountain to give this vantage point over the whole of divine and human history. During it Jesus’ form changed (that is what ‘transfiguration’ means). His body took on a glorious dimension: a foretaste of post-resurrection glory perhaps, revealing what was yet to come. Past and future combine on top of Tabor.
That this happened on planet earth, two thousand years ago, witnessed by only a few but recorded for posterity, and mentioned in the second letter of Peter is, naturally, bewildering. It is unnatural, breaching accepted conventions of history, geography, time and space. It is a truly supernatural event, alongside the ascension, and the resurrection. So, fantastical as it all may seem, when it comes to matters of faith, these are the zones we enter, these are the realms beyond our own of which we have a glimpse. These are the events that matter, and which take us beyond the idea that Jesus was a good chap with nice things to say; a moral code to promulgate and a way of life to teach us to follow. Jesus is more than that kind of domesticated holy man, and this story reminds us, as the voice of God is recorded as saying, there and then, and here and now, that “This is my Son, the Beloved… listen to him”.
The Transfiguration is a high level, four-dimensional meeting of heaven and earth, a midpoint of Jesus’ ministry, intersected by the past and the future, the human and the divine. After this there is no turning back: Jesus must descend to Jerusalem, to confront the authorities, preach the Kingdom, and face the inevitable and necessary consequences of the encounter between human sin and divine incarnation. Jesus is on his own now: his cousin John has been beheaded, and he will soon raise Lazarus from the dead in another supernatural event that prefigures his own saving death and resurrection.
So the Transfiguration is a special event in a special place. It is a high point, literally and metaphorically. A bit like our church here. We also are on top of a high point – one of the highest for miles. From on top of this hill we can see for miles and be seen from miles away, especially now the floodlighting is working again! Long may it continue, beyond the time zones of you and I. Past, present and future all combine, in this story, in this beautiful sacred place, and in our lives too. For wherever we stand, whenever we stand, looking over our shoulders at the past, or looking forward to the future, we are always on the peak of the moment. As such we can always look back and we can always look forward. And wherever and whenever that is, it is always our prayer, and our reality, that Jesus is with us, leading and guiding us, as friends and pilgrims on a journey together, now and always.
As the hymnwriter we began with put it:
Before we taste of death,
We see your kingdom come;
Before us keep your vision bright,
And make this place our home.
'Tis good, Lord, to be here!
Yet we may not remain;
But since you bid us leave the mount,
Come with us to the plain.
May it be so. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 23/02/2020
Announcement made at the end of the service:
The Transfiguration comes at the midpoint of the gospel, and is a point at which Jesus begins to prepare to say goodbye to his disciples. I have been here 17 years now, and at 53 years old, have 17 years to go before retirement. So today’s reading is very apt, as I am also at a midpoint. And indeed it is time to prepare to say farewell. It is time, my friends, to tell you that Jessica and Maria and I will be moving on after Easter.
Tomorrow morning it will be officially announced by Downing Street that I am to be the next Canon Chancellor of Rochester Cathedral. It is being announced there today as we speak, and so here am I telling you - which is not easy I can tell you.
I will be installed there on Saturday 13th June - and I expect everyone to come!
We all need to process this and prepare for it, and there is much time. Time for talking, for praying, for laughing and crying, I am sure.
But here we are, there it is. Let us pause for thought and then pray as we always do, having received God’s gift of holy communion.