28 Feb 2021

St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney, 28 February 2021

Peter, James and John are Jesus’ executive team.[1] They join Him on occasions marked ‘private and confidential’, when healing in homes or contemplating Jerusalem or agonising in the garden.[2] Paul calls them ‘the three pillars’ of the early Church (Gal 2:9). Today our Lord takes them up Mount Tabor with Him (Mk 9:2-10).

How did they feel? Chuffed, perhaps, that Jesus chose them to join Him on retreat. Exhausted, when they’d climbed the high mountain. Curious also: what would Jesus do next: preach a Sermon on the Mount to a congregation of three? Or offer them as a sacrifice like Abraham? Or issue a decalogue like Moses?

What must they have felt, when their friend and teacher and maybe Messiah, erupted with dazzling light, whiter than any Napisan could achieve? Or when those greatest figures of Israel’s history, Moses and Elijah, appear beside Him? Mark tells us they were terrified and bamboozled. But elated also: “Wow,” Peter exclaims, “it’s wonderful for us to be here.” Awesome!

In his poem Transfiguration, the Scottish writer Edwin Muir imagines what was going through their minds. As if Christ’s radiance had rubbed off on them he begins:

So from the ground we felt that virtue branch
Through all our veins till we were whole…

Our hands made new to handle holy things,
The source of all our seeing rinsed and cleansed…
Gave back to us the clear unfallen world.

We would have thrown our clothes away for lightness,

But that even they, though sour and travel stained,

Seemed, like our flesh, made of immortal substance…[3]

Mixed emotions of fear, confusion, trembling before the sublime, but lightness also, and elation: that’s how we’ll all feel when our turn comes to see the Lord face to face. A premonition, then, today of the excitement of Heaven but also of what will precede it, when our souls will be bleached to ready us for paradise. But for that we need not wait till death. Lent is a time for fear and failings, sins and sorrows, to be purged away by prayer, penance and charity, above all, by a good Confession.

How to respond to such a glimpse of heaven and its forecourt we call Purgatory? Though Mark dismisses it as nonsense, Peter’s instinct to erect three tabernacles for his heroes is natural enough. Think of the shrines Christians have built ever since over graves or relics or apparitions of the saints… But in proposing his three-domed basilica Peter still hasn’t grasped that Jesus, far from being the equal of Elijah and Moses, is their Creator. He doesn’t believe his own eyes that tell him Jesus is the Light of the world. Getting inside Peter’s head our poet continues:

Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
And nowhere? 

Vision or reality – Peter’s not sure. But next a cloud envelops them, reflecting their inner state: dark and clouded thoughts, gloom or stormy passions (cf. Job 3:1-6). Yet clouds are not all bad; for a people who knew too much desert and drought, they were a blessing.[4]

In the Old Testament, in fact, a cloud is often a sign of God’s presence. A pillar of cloud led Israel through the desert and filled the sanctuary of the Lord.[5] Sometimes the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud and the voice of the Lord heard from it.[6] When Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the tablets, he was enveloped in cloud for forty days and nights, until he emerged from his Lent with the ten commandments (Ex 24:15-8).

Similarly, in the New Testament, the story of the Incarnation begins with Mary being told the Holy Spirit will ‘overshadow her’ (Lk 1:35). Today that Spirit is revealed, in the cloud of divine glory. Today God the Son is revealed, in Jesus turned to light. Today God the Father is revealed, in the voice proclaiming His beloved Son. Today is an epiphany, then, not just of Jesus but of the Blessed Trinity. As St. Ambrose pointed out, Peter misses its significance:

Make no mistake, Simon. Do not imagine God’s son can be put into the same category as the servants who attend him. This man is my Son, neither Moses nor Elijah can be given that title, even though the one opened the sea and the other closed the skies.[7]

So Peter, James and John were there because they still had much to learn. But what about Moses and Elijah? Well, Moses was the one who met God in the clouds on Mount Sinai and descended with shining face and Law in hand. Elijah was the one who met God in a still small breeze on Mount Horeb, and prophesied before ascending to heaven (1Kings 19:11-18). Elijah was expected to return as harbinger of the Messiah and here he is.[8] Now these represent-atives of the Old Covenant meet with Christ. Indeed they meet in Christ – and so fade away thereafter. In Christ the Law and prophecies are fulfilled (Mt 5:17 etc.) and God’s plan of salvation finally comes to fruition.

But there is no glory without struggle. In our first reading (Gen 22:1-18), Abraham is sent up a mountain also, to test if he will give God his all. “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” his boy innocently asks. “God will provide,” quaking Abraham responds.

God prevents the sacrifice. “You have not refused me your son, your only son,” He says – and we Christians hear him add “and so I will not refuse you mine.” For his fidelity Abraham is made father of a great nation. But there is a hint of the true Lamb of sacrifice to come, the only Son of the Father, whose sacrifice will redeem the world.

And so, on His way down the mountain, Jesus predicts His dying and rising. Though He brought only his intimates, we are transported there by the miracle of hearing the Gospel, we and all fallen creation craving redemption, if Edwin Muir is to be believed:

The painted animals
Assembled there in gentle congregations…

the wild and tame together,
As if, also for them, the day had come…
The lurkers under doorways, murderers,
With rags tied round their feet for silence…
And those who hide within the labyrinth
Of their own loneliness and greatness came,
And those entangled in their own devices,
The silent and the garrulous liars, all
Stepped out of their dungeons and were free.

The Lamb of sacrifice has come, to redeem them all at Easter. But just as there was time between the Transfiguration and the Passion, time for Jesus to prepare His men as best He could, so too we have this time of Lent, for Jesus to prepare us also for that Day when not only the Old but the New covenant is fulfilled. He will come again, Muir confesses,

In our own time,

Some say, or at a time when time is ripe.

Then he will come, Christ the uncrucified,

Christ the discrucified, his death undone,

His agony unmade, his cross dismantled –

Glad to be so – and the tormented wood

Will cure its hurt and grow into a tree

In a green springing corner of young Eden.

Through cross to resurrection, through our struggles with hope: if we are ready like slow-learning Peter, James and John to be purified of fear, confusion and agoggery; if we are willing like faithful father Abraham to give our all to God; if we are able to peer through the clouds around us and within, to the Light that is Jesus, and hear the Father’s voice above the din of our lives, then transfiguration will be ours also, come the eternal Easter.

[1]    cf. Mt 4:18-22; 20:20-23; Mk 1:16-20; 10:35-41; Lk 5:1-10; 9:54

[2]    Mk 1:29; 5:37; 9:2; 13:3; 14:33; Mt 17:1; 26:37; Lk 8:51; Lk 9:28

[3]     Edwin Muir, The Transfiguration, https://allpoetry.com/The-Transfiguration-

[4]     e.g. Lev 26:4; 1Kings 8:35-6; Prov 3:20; 16:15; Job 5:10; 37:6; Isa 45:8; 55:10; Hosea 10:12; Zech 10:1; Joel 2:23; Mt 5:45; Acts 14:17

[5]    Ex 13:21-2; 33:9-10; 40:35-8; 1Kings 8:10-11 etc.

[6]    Ex 16:10; 19:9; 24:15-18; 34:5; Isa 30:30 etc.

[7]     St. Ambrose, Commentary on Psalm 45, 2

[8]    Mal 4:5; cf. Mt 11:14; 17:10-12; Mk 9:11-1; Lk 1:17; Jn 1:21

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney for the Solemn Mass of the Second Sunday of Lent. We continue to pray for safety through the pandemic, especially for our brothers and sisters in other countries that are faring much worse than we are because of COVID-19. A very warm welcome to all present, whether physically or virtually, as we join Jesus on His Lenten journey to the cross and resurrection.