St Bride's: Sermons

Mountain Glory

Matt 17:1-9

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17 And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart,

And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light.

And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him.

Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias.

While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.

And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid.

And Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid.

And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only.

And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying, Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead.

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Sandra and I used to spend each New Year with friends in Wales, close to the village of Pantycelyn where William Williams the poet and hymn writer who wrote the words of the hymn 'Bread of Heaven' came from.  Part of the New Year's ritual was a walk up Mynydd Bach (little mountain). Most years the walk required some considerable endurance, not because it was a particularly long one, but because it was often windy and wet.  Occasionally though we enjoyed one of those clear and crisp winter days and I recall very well one particular morning.  We made our way along the old Roman roadway to the slopes above, the sun in our faces as we climbed.  There were pockets of fog that lingered in the valleys below.  At the top we visited the remains of a Roman camp called Y Pigwn (the beaks) as well as a Bronze Age stone circle.  When we turned for home, with the sun behind us, very low in the sky, we came to a ridge and noticed that we cast enormous shadows on to one of the remaining banks of fog below and our shadows were surrounded by rings of light.  It was a bit like being visited by angels, one of those awe inspiring experiences of creation.  It was really quite magical, we played with our shadows for a while, eventually dragging ourselves away to head for lunch.  Those shadows that we cast, we discovered later, are called Brocken Spectres after the Brocken peak in the Harz Mountains in Germany were apparently they are frequently seen.  The rings of light are known as glories, they're caused by light interacting with water droplets in mist or clouds, they're a bit like a complete rainbow.  

Throughout human history mountains have held particular significance.  Certainly that was the case for our Bronze Age ancestors who created that stone circle at Y Pigwn and many others like it.  In the scriptures also, mountains have this special importance.  Moses climbed to the top of Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of the law.  When he returned down the mountain we are told that his face shone.  Elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, Malachi envisages the return of the prophet Elijah before the day of judgement and both Moses and Elijah appeared in the story of the transfiguration that we have heard in today's Gospel.  Jesus took Peter, James and John to a high mountain and there before them he was transfigured, his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as light and Moses and Elijah appeared with him. Mountains have a particular importance in Matthew's Gospel. 

We find that significant events often occur on mountains.  Luke's Gospel includes an account of the sermon on the plain but in Matthew we find the Sermon on the Mount.  Christ temptation takes place on a mountain, he feeds the multitudes on a mountain, his triumphal entry to Jerusalem is proclaimed on the Mount of Olives and he commissions his disciples before his ascension on a mountain.

Light also has particular symbolic resonance in Matthew's Gospel.   You remember that a guiding star lightened the magi's way to the Lord's nativity in Bethlehem.  The first words that Matthew attributes to Jesus refer to light - "the people who lived in darkness have seen a great light" he says.  Then here at the transfiguration we see the light of God's presence manifest in Jesus Christ - his face shines like the sun and his clothes are as white as light.  

Now perhaps you may have noted that the feast of the transfiguration is celebrated in August.  Why then do we find it in the lectionary again just before the beginning of Lent.
I'm sure part of the reason is that as we stand at a pivotal part of the church's year, between the festivities of Christmas and Epiphany behind us and our Lenten preparation for Easter ahead, we read the transfiguration because it is a pivotal moment in the Gospel story.   The importance of the transfiguration is sometimes overlooked, particularly in the Western Church but it's a very significant event, part of the revelation of Jesus's true identity.  The incident follows on in Matthew's Gospel from Peter's recognition of Jesus as Christ, son of the risen God as Caesarea Philippi.  From that point, the scripture tells us, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, to be killed and rise again.  Then at the transfiguration, the presence of Moses and Elijah emphasises that Jesus is the fulfilment of the prophets and the law.  There, as at his baptism, words are heard to be uttered from heaven - "this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased".  

Since the early church the transfigured body of Christ has been regarded as a preview of the glorified body of his resurrection.  The mountain, where the transfiguartion takes place, is a point where human nature meets God, a meeting place for the temporal and the eternal and Jesus himself is the connecting point, the bridge between heaven and earth, between God and creation.  

Whilst the transfiguration is clearly an extraordinary event, it would be a mistake to think of it as disconnected from ordinary human experience.  Importantly, the transfigured body of Christ reveals to us the face of God in fleshy humanity.  It is very much an incarnational event, the light of God's presence is revealed in human flesh.  We are called to seek to manifest that same light, to allow the luminous glory of God to shining in our lives.  Jesus instructs his disciples in Matthew's Gospel saying "let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your father which is in heaven".  We need to allow ourselves to be inspired by the vision of Christ on the mountain and by the divine voice that acclaims him as the beloved son because he is the light in which we see light.

The Orthodox church's kontakion, which is sung liturgy, a bit like a sermon in music, includes a rather nice reference to way in which humanity may be caught up in our Lord's transfiguation.  It says:
Today all mortal nature shines with the divine Transfiguration
And cries with exultation:
"Christ the Saviour is transfigured to save us all!"

All glory be to him now and to the ages of ages.


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