Here is a little exercise in inductive reasoning to wake us up:
Weary but satisfied, Fred turned off his computer. He had ordered everything he needed from the online catalogues. Everyone would be very happy. Six days later he put on his red trousers, red tunic, fur lined hat and fake beard.
Question: on what date did Fred complete his online ordering?
If you answered 18 or 19 December, congratulations! Because we are familiar with our own annual cycle of seasons and festivals, we recognise that Fred is preparing to act as one of Santa’s helpers at Christmas.
Now, today’s gospel reading: “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.”
Six days later. Time intervals like this are significant in the gospels, because the life of Jesus is told against the background of Jewish festivals, so that the events in the life of Jesus bring out the inner meaning of the festival. The one we are most familiar with, probably, is the death of Jesus taking place at the Passover, the inner meaning of which is that Jesus is bringing about a new liberation from sin and death foreshadowed in the ancient liberation of the Israelites from Egypt.
But there are many more such connections with the calendar in the gospels. According to biblical scholars today’s story of the Transfiguration is placed on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, which is six days after the Day of Atonement.
During the Feast of Tabernacles devout Jews live for a week in makeshift shelters – “tents” or “tabernacles” – to recall the wandering of their ancestors in the desert. Prayers are offered for the gift of water – very important in a desert climate. So the feast looks back to God’s saving work in the past and prays for present benefits. But it also looks forward, to the messianic age to come, in which, it is believed, the just will not live in a man-made city but in tents dwelling with God, enjoying God’s abundance. So those makeshift shelters are places of feasting and celebration in anticipation of this.
So on the Feast of Tabernacles Jesus takes his chosen disciples up Mount Tabor and is transfigured before them: literally he changes his form, and shines with the light which is the uncreated light of God. Jesus is seen to be God. And this is confirmed from heaven: a cloud overshadowed them, just as in the Old Testament the cloud of God’s glory, the shekinah, hovered over the Tent of Meeting. And the voice from the cloud proclaims “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”. And there appear Moses and Elijah who also experienced revelations of God on mountains.
There is a wealth of meaning here. The Tent of Meeting that Moses set up in the wilderness was a place where God was only present from time to time, and which only a few people could approach, very fearfully. But Jesus is here presented as the new Tent of Meeting, the dwelling place of God in person, a permanent dwelling which comes near to us and which all can approach. In Jesus the Feast of Tabernacles is fulfilled: the messianic age has come, God is dwelling with his people.
And whereas Moses brought down the tablets of the Law from Mount Sinai and said, “listen to these”, now on this new mountain the voice from heaven says, “listen to him”. Jesus is being presented as the law in person.
And Peter, in his stumbling and terrified way, recognises this: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter recognises that the messianic age promised by the Feast of Tabernacles is now here. God is dwelling with his people. But the cloud overshadows them: the revelation both discloses and conceals a God who cannot be contained or grasped.
Six days before was the Day of Atonement, when sacrifice was offered for the sins of Israel and the scapegoat driven out into the wilderness to bear their sins away. On that day Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, but he had then been scandalized by Jesus’ prediction that he would be rejected and killed and rise again. God’s atonement was to be brought about by the death and resurrection of the Messiah.
Peter had not understood that at all, and had tried to talk sense into Jesus, saying that mustn’t happen to you, and had earned a rebuke from him. And then came the dark and mysterious teaching that Jesus’ disciples, too, must take up their cross and follow him, that those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for his sake will find it.
The Transfiguration comes between that prediction and its fulfilment. It is at this point that Jesus begins his final journey up to Jerusalem to be betrayed, and killed, and to rise again.
It is not only in glory on the mountain, but also on the road to the cross, that God is dwelling with his people. The light of God has shone from Jesus, but that light illuminates the cross. The cross can only be understood in that light. And the light of God can only be understood through the cross. For the cross too is a “mountain experience”, in which God is both disclosed and concealed on the symbolic mountain of Calvary. On that mountain God’s glory is revealed in the form of submission to suffering and death, when God of his own free will and of his love endures the consequences of our sin.
Peter still doesn’t understand this. He wanted to fix the experience of the Transfiguration, to stay with the glory but avoid the cross. Even when coming down from the mountain the disciples still had no understanding of what “rising from the dead” might mean. Peter, and the rest of the disciples, will first have to go through the experience of loss and darkness and death. It is only in meeting the risen Christ at Easter that their understanding will finally be changed.
As for them, so for us. We shrink from the way of the cross. Nature and instinct want an easy path. We would rather stay with the light than follow Jesus into the darkness. But the light of God shows us the way we must go: the way to glory is the way of the cross, and none other. In fact, the light of the Transfiguration and the darkness of Calvary are the same: both hide God from our gaze, and both reveal to us that it is in dying that we live. Both reveal the mystery of God dwelling with his people: a sign of contradiction, but also of hope.
If we set out to follow Jesus he will lead us along a path which is often what we do not expect, and sometimes where we do not wish to go. And whenever we think we think we’ve got it all planned out, that we know what God wants of us, that it will all now be clear and easy, that is when we are most likely to find ourselves suddenly in the dark, learning to trust God again instead of dictating our agenda to him. But that darkness is also a revelation of God. St John of the Cross says that the light of God is darkness to the senses, because we cannot know God by sight or hearing or intellect, but only by love through faith.
The uncreated light transfigures our mortal bodies, changing us into the likeness of Christ. But this can only happen by the way of the cross, the way by which we renounce ourselves and willingly follow Christ on the path of self-emptying, self-denial and self-sacrifice. The light of God comes to us as darkness to lead us away from everything we think we know so that we can fully enter into that mystery of God dwelling with us, the God who hides himself in the glory of Tabor and in the darkness of Calvary.