The Mount of Transfiguration and Mount Calvary
From the cloud there came a voice,
“This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him.”
You could wonder, why wasn’t the transfiguration enough? All that is needed to be known about Jesus is put on display there. In a way everything is summed up right here. He is clearly God’s Son. Such a scene should leave no doubt And therefore, since he is who has all along appeared to be, his teaching should be accepted. He should be trusted and obeyed to lead his people back to God, and to establish God’s reign in the world. Job done. There it is, all the gospel that needs to be proclaimed.
Six days later Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain by themselves and he was transfigured before them.
Peter and James and John, these ones at least, as representatives of all the followers of Jesus are permitted to see for themselves the inner reality of Jesus. They are shown what we might call, “his true self.” It is displayed before them. Here at the top of the mountain where it is reckoned the boundary between heaven and earth is at its narrowest, it is clear that Jesus is so filled with the divine presence that his features are changed. The brightness of God shines through him so that his clothes glow with a whiteness no bleacher could achieve on earth. What was the merest of reflections when it came to Moses, though still too bright to look at, is in Jesus his real substance. Jesus possesses not just a reflected glow of God’s nearness but very brightness of God itself. If you are with Jesus you are with God. If you meet Jesus you have, for all useful purposes, met God. And the voice of God speaks from the cloud to confirm this. Jesus is given the divine seal of approval:
“This is my Son,
“This is the one who is special to me and to my purpose.
“The one in whom I am well pleased.
“Listen to him!
For when he speaks I speak.”
Here is confirmation directly from God of the conclusion that Peter had already arrived at those six days earlier. And it is given in the presence of those who had spoken most clearly for God in ages past: Moses the law giver and Elijah the prophet. God declares that the voice which we should listen to is Jesus’. When Jesus commands, we should obey. When Jesus promises, we should hope. Moses and Elijah speak the truth about God. But rather than in Moses and Elijah, the focus of the source of knowledge about God, God’s will, God’s intentions for humans is relocated in Jesus. Now is the time of Jesus. All that needs to be said about Jesus is already said here on this mountain. He is God’s Son, to whom we must listen and respond.
Couldn’t it have been possible for Peter James and John to have come down that mountain and tell the other disciples what they had heard and seen? Wouldn’t it have been possible for them to confirm that what they all already suspect to be true is the truth? Jesus is the Christ, the Holy one of God. Could they not have convinced the other disciples that the power of God to save really does reside in Jesus? And could not the disciples fanned out from the foot of that mountain and carried the Good News through out all the world from there? The good news that the reign of God is established in Jesus, because Peter and James and John have seen that is it is so on the Mount of Transfiguration. Couldn’t the Acts of the Apostles have followed directly on from Mark chapter 9? Except that we know that it doesn’t!
Mark’s gospel is barely half done. And we know the rest of the story. We know that Jesus is arrested, rejected by those in power and is killed. Not even Peter and James and John, who had seen for themselves who Jesus really is, who accompanied him as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, not even they could stay awake and listen with him. And even they, who had been to the mountain top with him, fled when the soldiers and the mob came with their torches and their clubs to take Jesus away. And far from sharing God’s love for Jesus, Peter denied ever having known him, three times, before that night was over. The transfiguration is not enough. Religious experience, the mountain top, is not enough to turn even the best of human hearts decisively to God.
But it is not as if God didn’t already know that! The transfiguration was never meant to be the end of the Gospel and the beginning of the Church. Six days before Jesus took Peter and James and John away on their own and up the mountain. Six days earlier Peter, speaking first what the other disciples were already thinking, had arrived at the conclusion that Jesus is the Messiah. And it was from that point that Jesus began to teach them quite openly what was going to happen to him in the end:
“The the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
Almost a week before the Transfiguration Jesus was already telling them that he would be handed over to those in power, who would reject, abuse and finally kill him that this all was necessary, part of the way which God must act, before finally he would rise again vindicated. Then and only then could the Good News be preached to the ends of the earth. The Mount of Transfiguration is not a first attempt to establish the church which falls short. It is not a tragic failure that leads to the Mount of Calvary. Far from it; the cross, from the very beginning, forms part of God’s, sovereign, gracious, divine plan. It is so, because “religion,” human beings climbing up the mountain towards God, is not enough to deal with what separates them from God. Religion, in the sense human striving towards God, is not enough truly and decisively to turn human hearts to God.
But Calvary doesn’t negate the Transfiguration. They are not in contradiction with one another. They are both true. And together they provide a fuller picture of the ways of God and how God seeks to bring human beings to him. What the transfiguration does do is throw the crucifixion into sharper relief.
A mountain is an obvious place to meet God. The place where the distance between earth and heaven is shortest. That is as true of Calvary as it is of the Mount of Transfiguration. But a mountain is also an obvious place for a public execution. It can also be where the power of the powerful can be graphically displayed to the powerless. It can be a place where everyone can see and no one can fail to get the message; Who is in charge and what happens to those who resist.
But the true nature of Jesus is as fully displayed as it hangs on the cross as it is glowing with the brightness of the glory of God. Indeed there is no contradiction between these two scenes. God graciously joins the powerless on the cross to overcome the oppression of the powerful and the cruelty and death which they wield. It is right that Jesus should be joined by Moses and Elijah. The saints who spoke for God in the past and who God loved so much he spared them experience of death. For he most of all Jesus speaks the word of God and is the beloved of God. But it is also right that Jesus should be flanked by two dying criminals who cry out in fear and desperation. For it is their voice that God also hears and heeds. And whilst Moses and Elijah were carried straight into heaven, God does not spare his own Son death, even death in its most acute and bitter form the criminals death on a cross. So desperate is human need and so urgent is God’s desire to close the gap between humans and himself that he will do quite literally anything and everything, short of stealing our freedom to reject him, to accomplish it.
It is good to hear God speak the truth in the shadow of a cloud But it is better, when the sun is blotted out and the world is darkened by the wickedness that humans can do, that that same truth can be testified to in a human voice. When seeing all these things, like the centurion at the foot the cross we can say:
“Truly this man was God’s Son.”
Perhaps the Transfiguration should be enough. But it isn’t. What it does do is reveal more sharply what is enough. The Good News that is the Cross
The Mount of Transfiguration and Mount Calvary by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0