Readings for Transfiguration Sunday 18 February 2007 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

For the Lectionary and other reflections, check out Transfiguration/Last Epihphany Textweek

Sermon by Frank Sheehan

Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; II Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36, (37-43)

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Of all the moveable feasts in the Church’s calendar few cover more ground than the Transfiguration. It can appear just before Lent as we are doing today or on the second Sunday of Lent or on the 6th of August, which of course, may not be a Sunday. Perhaps we have it at this time of the liturgical year either just before or in Lent because it offers a contrast from the solemnity and abstinence of Lent. It gives a little glimpse of Heaven as we ponder the travails of this earthly existence. It used to be that the Feast of the Transfiguration was celebrated only on August 6th, on what we now know as Hiroshima Day. And there was something right about that. Both ‘events’ have an overshadowing cloud; both are apocalyptic and are about immense power; and, in their different ways, they call on us to move towards a change of consciousness. They call on us to have new ways of seeing and feeling. Each brings on a type of fear, a terrible awe, and each leads on to healing. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, people said enough is enough: we cannot afford this; we must seek a cure for the thing that divides us off from one another or all perish together.

The healing following the Transfiguration is connected to God, to a power beyond anything human beings can come up with. Certainly, that’s what the Gospel writers are saying as they link the strange event of the Transfiguration with a young boy’s release from an evil spirit. Matthew, Mark and Luke all do this. John, of course, doesn’t mention the Transfiguration at all.

There seems to be a recognition of universal religious or spiritual patterns (archetypes) in the recording of the dramatic transformation in Christ’s appearance. There is a discussion of this between the Benedictine priest Laurence Freeman (who’ll be visiting Perth in a few weeks) and the Dalai Lama in a book called The Good Heart. In their conversation they talk about the place of visionary mystic experiences. Though the Dalai Lama laments that he has had no such experiences, he doesn’t discount them for that. Another archetype that comes out of this story is the exhaustion, the deep sleep of those who have encountered the majesty of God, the mysterium tremendum to quote one theologian.
Many people have been helped by Raphael’s final and unfinished work, ‘The Transfiguration’, where we see the cloud of unknowing, the white garments, the time travel of Moses and Elijah, representing on the one hand, the Law that held the community together and on the other, the prophetic, questioning figure who was last seen going off in a chariot of fire. And just below Christ, Moses and Elijah are Peter, James and John, who have been to the mountain and there ‘seen’ something. Further down are people aware of the disturbance, some even point to it, others hide; others still point to the boy who has needed to be changed, set free, released. On the faces of most is an expression that conveys the question ‘What us going on here? What is this spiritual upsurge and disturbance?’ Questions hang in the air. There is certainly a suddenness to things. Matthew uses the word ‘sudden’ a few times. This morning too, Luke makes the point that all this has happened if not out of the blue, at least without warning. The participants have been pulled up, shaken – no room for complacency for anyone in the vicinity. It is all part of the unpredictability that is there when people go up hills to pray: you never know what will happen, you may see that glory of the Lord.

The Transfiguration has to do with the inner. Looking around for some comment on it that makes sense, I was reading Ninian Smart’s classic work, The Religious Experience of Mankind. He writes about a religious experience involving some perception of the invisible. In trying to work out why people would write about such a ‘scene’, he dwells on the experience that they’d heard about and believed. What did go on? He writes that Peter, James and John saw Christ invested with depth. They saw something very different and they couldn’t ignore it. Despite the fact that they are obtuse, things will no longer be the same. Peter, who always wins the prize for missing the point (and is a personal favourite of mine), wants to stay on the mountain, to grasp the experience rather than receive it with open hands; to cling to the moment of time when they have just stepped outside time. Blake, who walked through this territory, knew that you always have to return from the mountain and get on with life.
He also knew that
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.

Those who’d gone to the mountain top were able to see that same sunrise. For many people there is no such seeing or experiencing. Their faith is more a winter time faith, involving trust; it’s a waiting game without fanfare. An episode about clouds invested with meaning, voices, light, the body language of terror, words about peace, and the reappearance of long-dead figures are, at best, confined to dreams, dreams being God’s forgotten language. And yet as Bruce Dawe put it in one of his poems, there may be another way forward. He writes:

‘one evening, out of the darkening blue immensity of sky, without warning, and without the ominous build up of clouds in the north east, lightning may flicker long enough across our vision to enable us to take in a larger understanding of ourselves….’

Always, it seems to me, this invitation to a spaciousness is the thing that matters; that we may glimpse and continue to see beyond to some bigger picture where our own smallness is fine and even helpful because, as this unusual narrative tries to tell us, it is that power beyond ourselves that in the end counts.

This awareness makes for a sort of lightness of being, a nakedness of soul giving a perspective that can only come through letting go. To know about the glory means we can be less preoccupied with our own spiritual progress. The poet Edwin Muir captures it in his work ‘Transfiguration’. He is writing as one of the apostles. I’d like him to have the last word.


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,
And the soiled flax and wool lay light upon us
Like friendly wonders, flower and flock entwined
As in a morning field. 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?

Sermon by Frank Sheehan