Table Mountain and the Transfiguration
Revd Caroline Risdon, 11 February 2018
Let us pray…
Loving God we give you thanks for the gift of your word, the grace of the sacrament and the fellowship of your people. Amen.
Most of you know by now that I am from Cape Town in South Africa. And one of my favourite things about my home city is Table Mountain- so called because it is flat like a table on top. As the aeroplane reaches Cape Town, usually in the early morning, the pilot will often tip the plane so that passengers on both sides can see the mountain and the city laid out before them. It is the moment you know you have finally arrived.
But that mountain is also part of what makes me feel like I’m home, whenever I visit Cape Town. It is central and constant, ever just in your peripheral vision. And many of you know that I’m quite geographically challenged! Table Mountain enables me to know where I am, to be orientated, in a way I have never found with the Thames!
I’ve been thinking about Table Mountain this week, not only because the Transfiguration is set on the mountain top, but because, in the Bible, important things always happen on mountain tops.
In fact, in the Old Testament, the mountain top is not just the place of divine revelation but also of divine and human meeting. This context is important because both Moses and Elijah, who appear alongside Jesus in our Gospel story, went up mountains to meet God. They both brought messages from God that were rejected by God’s people. And on their deaths, both Moses and Elijah are accorded with passing directly into the divine presence. These 2 men of faith are often thought to represent the law (Moses), and the prophets (Elijah). So when Jesus is in the company of Moses and Elijah, we are to understand that he is a Holy Man of God. But more than that, he is the fulfillment of all that the law promised and the prophets foretold.
In this way, the transfiguration draws on the past. But the Transfiguration was also a moment when heaven touched earth, when eternity entered time, when the divine was manifest in the human. In that sense, it is a glimpse of fulfillment. A vision of the future glory of the risen Christ.
This reference backwards and forwards is how Holy Scripture draws our attention to what is really significant. It speaks in and through signs and in this story particularly in the sign of water, the sign of light and the sign of the cloud, which is water and light together.
Light comes first and last in Scripture. We behold that first creation of light in Genesis. Then, St John announces that the light of the world has entered into our world in the baby Jesus. He is the light that shone in the darkness and was not overcome. And finally we hear, in the book of revelations, of the light that shines at the centre of the heavenly city.
Then we have the sign of water. Again we begin with creation and the water that was the first source of life. We are reminded of the water that burst forth from the rock while God’s people wandered in the wilderness. In the gospels, we hear of the water that generates new life in baptism. And we end with the streams that flow from the heavenly city in the book of Revelations. The signs of light and of water have to do with creation and refreshment and the coming of the kingdom of God.
Finally we have the sign of the cloud. When the people of Israel travelled hopefully to a new country, the cloud went before them. Those people witnessed a cloud envelope Moses as he received the law and met with God. The cloud that remained over the Temple signified that God was present with his people. And the cloud in today’s gospel reveals the divine presence in the face of Jesus Christ.
So, through these signs of water and light and cloud, it is made known to us that God has come near, in the person of Jesus Christ. The same God who was and is and is to come.
Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus was “transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” The cloud overshadowed them and the Father’s voice spoke of his beloved son. We are used to thinking of this as the story of Jesus somehow changing.
But the more I dwell on this story, the more I think it is we who witness this transfiguration who are changed. Jesus did not suddenly light up in front of the disciples and become something he was not. No, their eyes were healed and opened so they could see Jesus as he had always been. The voice in the cloud was not new. Their ears were opened and they heard the voice that has never ceased speaking from the beginning. The transfiguration is as much about the change within the disciples as it is about a true revelation of who Jesus is.
For all my love of Table Mountain, for all that it is for me a beacon of beauty and hope and home, I have only been to the top of it 3 or 4 times in my life. Similarly spiritual moments of true understanding are rare and precious. They cannot be sought out or grasped by any of our own effort. It is entirely a gift of God.
But perhaps that is why we are gifted the story of the Transfiguration on the eve of our journey through Lent. As we approach the arid desert, we hold before us this true reflection of Jesus. We are privileged to witness the glory of the crucified and risen Lord, and to know and to love him once more.