Sunday, 7 August 2016


Address given at Templederry on Sunday 7th August 2016, the 11th after Trinity, celebrated as the Feast of the Transfiguration, transferred from 6th August.

Today we celebrate the Festival of the Transfiguration.
In the Gospel reading Luke 9:28-36 gives us a short account of how Peter and James and John had a strange spiritual and emotional experience. Jesus brought them high on a mountain to pray. There they saw Jesus transfigured, in dazzling white clothing, his face changed, and alongside him Elijah and Moses. As cloud enveloped them they hear a voice saying, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him’. The same story is also told in the other synoptic Gospels – scholars believe Luke and Matthew most likely got it from Mark.

Some people interpret 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 am sure there is a lot more to it than this. The Church has always seen this as an important story, because it reveals Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God.

In reflecting on the Transfiguration, 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: Luke’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 encounter 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 there are even software packages 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.
The Brocken Spectre

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.

I hope you don’t feel that this physical explanation takes anything away from the transfiguration story. It helps me to believe that the Transfiguration really did take place, and was not invented by the Gospel writers to serve their own artistic or theological needs. I believe that God is present in and works through the laws of the universe he created. The disciples accurately reported what they saw, even if they could not understand the physics. What matters surely is what this revealed to them about the nature of Jesus and his relationship with God.

If you are interested in more of the physics, see

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 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, and as the cloud moves away and the glory fades he calls out to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’. Peter didn’t want this emotional moment to end – such a human response!

Then the cloud closes in around them and all three are terrified. And they heard a voice as if from heaven, 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 report 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 Mahomed, peace be upon him, whose ‘night journey’ took him to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. We may not have had such a religious experience ourselves – I haven’t - but we may have felt something similar, for instance at the moment we realise that this very person I am with is the one I want to marry, to spend the rest of my life with.

Finally, what effect did this experience have on Peter, James and John?
The voice the disciples heard told them to listen to Jesus, and this surely is what they did. From then on Jesus intensified his teaching to them, as if preparing them for their role as apostles after his death.

I believe 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.

And they never forgot this moment of insight into Jesus’s relationship with God, for they passed on the story through Mark, to Matthew and Luke, and so to ourselves.

We should value their experience, and other religious experiences, because without them, and without the spiritual commitment that flows from them, there could be no Church, and we would not be here today.

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