Sunday, 22 February 2009

Transfiguration

Address given at Shinrone and Aghancon on Sunday 22nd Bebruary 2009 - Transfiguration Sunday, the Sunday before Lent

An example of a Glory - the Brocken Spectre

Today is traditionally called Transfiguration Sunday.

In today's Gospel reading Mark gives us a short account of how Peter and James and John had a strange spiritual and emotional experience. They saw Jesus transfigured, in dazzling white clothing, with Elijah and Moses, high in a mountain. The same story is told in the other synoptic Gospels, and scholars tell us that most likely Matthew and Luke made use of Mark’s earlier account.

The Church obviously sees this as an important story, because the traditional church calendar also takes a second bite at it, with the Festival of the Transfiguration on 8 Aug.

So what is its importance? Some people have seen the Transfiguration as a miracle story prefiguring Jesus’s Ascension, a sort of artistic device to reinforce the Gospel drama. This might be all well and good as literary criticism, but I feel there is a lot more to it than this!

In reflecting on the Transfiguration story, I’m going to look first at the physics that may lie behind it, then at the disciples’ emotional response to it, and lastly at the effect their experience had on them

First to the physics:

Mark’s account gives us a clue as to what the disciples actually saw. They were high on a mountain, with cloud around. These are just the circumstances where we can see an optical effect called a ‘Glory’. In this effect sunlight is scattered back from water droplets in a mist, as a glowing halo. The technical term for this is Mie scattering, and you can even download software packages from the Web to calculate what can be seen for different droplet sizes!

Historically, the most famous example is the ‘Brocken Spectre’, so named because of sightings on the Brocken, the highest peak of the Harz Mountains in Germany. This appears when a low sun is behind a climber who is looking downwards into mist from a ridge or peak. The spectre is the shadow of the observer projected onto the mist, and it is surrounded by the glowing halo of a glory. Above you can see a photograph of it, and another here.

You might be lucky enough to see a Glory yourselves, as I have. I saw it when I looked down from a plane at the shadow it cast on a cloud. The shadow was surrounded with a halo of light – this was the glory! Try looking for it the next time you fly off on holiday.

If you are interested in more of the physics, see http://www.atoptics.co.uk/

I do hope you don’t feel that this takes anything away from the transfiguration story. Far from making the Transfiguration more mundane, for me, as a modern man with just a little scientific training, the physical explanation makes me think that Mark did not just invent it to serve his artistic and theological needs. It helps me believe that the event really did take place!

Now, let us focus on what the disciples actually experienced, emotionally and spiritually.

I imagine Peter and James and John close together on the mountain, with Jesus a little bit away, as the clouds swirled around them. Where Jesus had stood, they each suddenly see a glowing figure – it’s their own shadow cast on a cloud, wrapped in a glory - and two other shadows beside it, those of their companions.

They would not have understood the physics, as we can, but they are awed by what they see. Peter was always the impulsive one. Just days before, when Jesus had asked the disciples who people said that he was, Peter had blurted out ‘You are the Messiah’. Now he identifies the three figures with Jesus, Moses and Elijah.

All three were terrified. The cloud came down around them, and it was as if they heard a voice, saying ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!’

This description of their spiritual experience rings very true to me. When people suddenly realise something of vital importance, something which changes everything, they often talk of having a ‘flash of inspiration’ or ‘hearing a voice’. Many people have reported such deeply emotional religious experiences. This is so in our own Christian tradition, for St Paul or St Francis for instance; and perhaps for some of our ‘born again’ contemporaries. But it is also so in other faith traditions, such as for Gautama, the Buddha, who experienced enlightenment under a Bodh tree, and for Mahommed, peace be upon him. We may not have had such a religious experience ourselves - many never do - but we may have felt something similar, for instance at the moment we realise that this person here is the one I want to marry, to spend the rest of my life with.

Finally, if Peter and James and John had such a life-changing experience, what effect did it have on them?

Neither Mark nor the other Gospels tell us much about this. After all, Jesus forbade them to talk about it, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. But they remembered its importance clearly, for they passed on the story through Mark, to Matthew and Luke, and so passed it on to ourselves.

The voice the disciples heard told them to listen to Jesus. I get the impression reading on in Mark’s Gospel that from then on Jesus intensified his teaching to them, as if preparing them for their role as apostles after his death.

I think the Transfiguration was the moment on their long road when they realised their complete commitment to Jesus and his teaching. Starting from the call in Galilee, this road led them ultimately to Jerusalem, to the Cross, to the Resurrection, to the Ascension, and on to Pentecost, where they started to blossom as the church of Christ.

With the start of Lent, we too shall be starting out on this road to Jerusalem, we too shall be following the Gospel drama.

I believe we should value Peter and James and John's transfiguration experience, and other transfiguration experiences, because without them, and without the commitment that flows from them, there would be no church, and we would not be here today!

2 comments:

Daniel Owen said...

Thank you Joc for a very interesting mixture of science and faith woven together in a great sermon. I think the 'glory' explanation a fascinating one and I would like to find out more because the event in the gospel seems to be much greater than this explanation (as I understand it) on its own would allow.

Joc Sanders said...

Thanks for your comment, Daniel. Do have a look at the opticasl physics of glories - I feel sure they will interest you as a photographer. I've commented further on your blog.
God bless