St James, Priddis
O GOD, who on the holy mount didst reveal to chosen witnesses thy well-beloved Son wonderfully transfigured: Mercifully grant-unto us such a vision of his divine majesty, that we, being purified and strengthened by thy grace, may be transformed into his likeness from glory to glory; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings, he took Peter and John and James, and went up into a mountain to pray. And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering. And, behold, there talked with him two men, which were Moses and Elias: Who appeared in glory, and spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem.
May the words of my lips, and the thoughts and meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord. It is an event mentioned in the Gospels of Sts Matthew, Mark and Luke, and also in our Epistle reading today from the Second Letter of St Peter. It is an important feast in the life of the Church and an important event in the Gospel of Christ, in which the fullness of Christ, fully God and fully man, is revealed to select Apostles.
Speaking as a student, we’re often told that we can use events from our own lives to help make these great Biblical events relatable. So, let me tell you about the time I went mountain climbing with the Apostles and saw the son of God revealed to me in divine glory! Well, I can’t do that, but I can show you this.
The observant among you might suggest it’s crystal serving dish. Some might even recognize it as a divided pickle dish. It’s far more than that, though, but apart from special revelation from me, you could never understand the fullness of what this is.
You see, this isn’t just a pickle dish, this is my Grandmother’s pickle dish. When I was growing up, my grandmother loved to host family suppers. She especially loved Easter Sunday, when we would have a ham. In this dish, there would be one side filled with sweet mustard pickles, her favourite, and the other side would have, if she was feeling generous towards my mother, a three-bean salad or otherwise another kind of pickles. It was an omni-present dish, and when my grandmother died in 2011, it was among the dishes I inherited from her, to match my love of hosting dinner parties which I had inherited from her many years before.
This dish is special. Not because of the material it’s made out of, but because of who it represents. When I bring it out, it is to me a memory of my Grandmother. And that is the fullness of this object. While it might appear to be just a practical object, though some might wrongly debate the necessity and usefulness of crystal pickle dishes, it is in fact a very special dish. It is my grandmother that makes this dish special, and memorable. The only way you would realise how special it is, though, is through someone telling you.
In the Transfiguration, Jesus put to rest any lingering doubt that he was just a teacher, or even just the Messiah. He was the son of God. It was through this special revelation that the Apostles are witness to his fullness.
I want to take a few moments to look through St Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, which was our Gospel reading today.
It begins saying it was eight days after Jesus had said something. This is reference to verses 18-27 of chapter 9 in which Jesus asks his disciples who the crowds say that he is. Among the reply is that they say he is Elijah, or one of the prophets. Then Christ asks who they, the Apostles, say he is. St Peter responds for the group saying Jesus is the Messiah.[i] Jesus responds to this by saying that he will be killed by the chief priests and raised up on the third day.[ii]
It is a week later and Jesus takes Sts Peter, James, patron of this church, and John up a mountain to pray. This is a common pattern in the Gospels for Christ. Especially common after he spends time performing miracles, Christ will go somewhere private to pray. To spend time with his Father. We aren’t told which mountain it is that they go to. To me, it means it could be anywhere. It’s a reminder that these special encounters with Christ don’t just happen on sacred ground, they can happen anywhere. They happen throughout our daily lives, and in the places and at the times we least expect.
In this case, he brings three of his trusted disciples with him, and while he is praying, we are told, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightening.”[iii] Then two men appear, Elijah and Moses, the great prophet and the great law-giver, and they speak with Jesus.
Why these two? What’s the significance? St John Chrysostom suggests a few reasons that we can take for the importance of these two people in particular speaking with Christ. First, by having Elijah there, it confirms that he is not Elijah as some people thought. Second, by having Moses there, it suggests that those who were condemning Christ as a law-breaker, like the Pharisees, were also wrong.[iv] Moses wouldn’t come to speak with Christ if he were a law-breaker, but because he isn’t, because he is the son of God, Moses is there to speak with Jesus.
We are told that they speak, “about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem.” This seems like he’s again predicting his death and resurrection, as he had done the week before, however there seem to be indications that this chat is more than just repetition of what was said earlier in the chapter. The Greek word which is rendered as ‘bring to fulfilment’ has a broad range of meaning. It can be thought of in terms of accomplishing something or achieving something.
It seems likely here that this reference is to the fact that they were discussing not simply his death and resurrection, but the impact of what Christ was about to do on salvation history. They were speaking of his bringing to completion the atonement, his saving act of love for all humanity on the Cross.[v]
The next few verses are probably some of the easiest to understand in the passage. St Peter and the others are falling asleep, just as the disciples would when asked to pray with Jesus at Gethsemene, but then they become fully awake when they see Christ’s transfigured glory. Then St Peter, struggling to find words, suggests building tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, and the passage says St Peter didn’t know what he was saying when he spoke this.[vi] In St Mark’s account of the transfiguration, it says St Peter and the others were too afraid to know what they were saying.[vii]
Imagine this. Alan Getty invites you to join him on a prayer walk. You head out into the countryside, going on a long hiking trail and finally come to a suitable spot to stop and pray. The hike took a little longer than you thought, you’ve got a bit of dirt and mud on your trousers and boots, it’s hot and sunny and you kneel down to pray with Alan for a while… The next thing you know it seems you’ve been resting in the spirit for a while, but as you look up and get your bearings, there is Alan a few feet away. He’s wearing the finest vestments you’ve ever seen and standing with him is the Archbishop of Canterbury and Queen Elizabeth II, wearing their finest as well. I don’t think I’d be able to get a word out of my mouth at that point, let alone a coherent sentence like St Peter. And in his case, he wasn’t just dealing with people dressed in fancy clothes, he was dealing with the son of God whose glory was being revealed! So I think we can cut him a little slack for being tongue-tied!
While St Peter is saying this, a cloud appeared, which is a way in which God the Father often appears in the Scriptures,[viii] and a voice comes out of the cloud saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”[ix] If there was any doubt, any possibility that Christ was not the son of God, it has been removed. The Apostles are seeing the fullness of Jesus revealed before them. How would you react to the presence of the son of God?
To make it clear that God’s voice here is speaking of Jesus, when the voice from the cloud finishes speaking, the disciples find that Jesus was now alone.[x] Moses and Elijah are gone. The voice could not have been speaking of either of them.
The passage then comes to end saying that the disciples kept it to themselves, mirroring Jesus’s request earlier that they not tell anyone he was the Messiah after St Peter proclaims him Messiah. It says that they did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen, but clearly they eventually told others so it could be recorded in the Gospels under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and there is similarly another reference to it in our Epistle reading from earlier where we hear reference to the voice of the cloud.
All told, we have a beautiful encounter with Christ, in which his fullness is revealed to three of the Apostles. That’s great. But what does it tell us today? Surely there are plenty of other passages that proclaim clearly Jesus is the son of God? What can we uniquely learn from the Transfiguration?
Earlier in Chapter 9 of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus had commissioned the 12 to go out and proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God. It was a foretaste of the commission, the Great Commission, which we were all Baptised into. Christ’s glory, his saving grace on the Cross, is revealed to the Apostles in the Transfiguration, so that it can be proclaimed. His fullness is revealed, so that they know what to share with others.
So what does that mean for us today? Where do we, if at all, experience the Transfiguration of Christ? Where do we see his fullness, as the Apostles did?
This is where the pickle dish comes in. Coming to see and know the fullness of Christ isn’t something that happens overnight. You don’t make a pickle in an instant, you soak the cucumber in the brine for a few weeks, and even after you seal it all up, it will taste better if you leave it in the brine longer. The fullness of the pickle comes from the soaking.
The fullness of Christ is like that. We can see it with the way Christ’s disciples were changed by his presence with them. They were pickled over time. Some of them were given these experiences that helped them along their journey. St Peter goes from seeing Christ as just a good teacher to, just before our reading today, confessing him as the Messiah. Then he sees Christ transfigured into the majesty of the fullness of his identity. Given honour and glory by the Father, despite having humbled himself in his incarnation into the created order. Some of this was a bit more dramatic than pickling, but for most of us, pickling is what enables us to see, and be, the fullness of Christ.
If we want to see Christ for who he truly is, not just a carpenter or a teacher or even just a good man, but the son of God, then we need to soak ourselves in God’s Word. If, when we look at someone who is poor, or hungry or cold and we want to see not just someone who is less fortunate than we are, but we want to see Christ,[xi] then we need to be pickled by him. Transformed by him.
You see, unlike in our reading today where the Apostles were given an opportunity to see the fullness of Christ, we are called to greater things. We are called not only to see the fullness of Christ, whether it be in others or in God’s Word, but we are called to be the fullness of Christ.
As baptised Christians, Christ resides in us. He sacrificed himself for our sakes on the cross so that we could be reconciled through him to the Father. We aren’t called to just proclaim Christ in the world, but to be Christ in the world. We are to follow Christ’s example, to live in unity with the Father.[xii]
Dear friends in Christ, this week, consider the ways in which you can be pickled by Christ. Christ offers himself, his grace, to us in so many ways. Be pickled by his Word. Be pickled, whenever possible, by the Sacrament of his most precious Body and Blood. Be pickled by the way you seek for Christ in others, whether they are mature Christians whose example you emulate, or they are those whom Christ has commanded you to seek him in: children, the poor and lowly.
The Transfiguration on the Holy Mount was a foretaste to the Apostles of what we live in today, a world in which the fullness of the incarnate son of God is a present reality in our lives. May we never forget it, and may we always seek after His fullness.
I have spoken to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] St Lk ix. 18-20
[ii] St Lk ix. 22
[iii] St Lk ix. 29
[iv] St John Chrysostom, Hom. Matt. 56.3
[v] St John Chrysostom, Hom. Matt. 56.3
[vi] St Lk ix. 33
[vii] St Mk ix. 6
[viii] St John Chrysostom, Hom. Matt. 56.5
[ix] St Lk ix. 35
[x] St Lk ix.36
[xi] St Mt xxv. 31-45
[xii] St Jn xvii. 21