Sunday 22 February 2009


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

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!

Sunday 8 February 2009

Strength of purpose

An address given at Templederry and Killodiernan on 8th February 2009, the 3rd Sunday before Lent.

I'm very struck by how much pressure Jesus could absorb in his ministry!

He never turned anyone away, he always responded when someone needed him, whatever time of the day or night it was. His strength of purpose was quite amazing. This is perfectly illustrated by Mark’s account in today’s NT reading (Mark 1:29-39).

Ruins of the C4th Synagogue at Capernaum, under which archeologists think that of Jesus's time may lie

Jesus had just been to the synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath. No doubt the leader of the synagogue had invited him to expound the Jewish scriptures, as was the custom for a visiting Rabbi. The congregation ‘were astounded at his teaching’, we are told, ‘for he taught them as one having authority’. Then he was heckled by ‘a man with an unclean spirit’, which Jesus cast out – I suppose the man was ranting and disruptive because he suffered a mental illness.

After all that, you would think that Jesus would want to relax. I certainly do when I’ve been leading services on a Sunday! But no, when he leaves the synagogue and goes to Simon Peter’s house, he finds Simon’s mother-in-law ill in bed. She needs him, and he has to respond; which he does by curing her fever. And that evening, more people come crowding to the house, bringing with them others who are sick or possessed by demons. Jesus is still needed and he must respond as he always does, late into the night.

And so it continued, throughout Jesus’s ministry.

Perhaps Jesus was one of those rare people who can get by on very little sleep.

If so, he wasn't a bit like me - I need my full 8 hours!

Mark tells us that Jesus was up again early, while it was still dark, to go out by himself to pray. I feel sure he needed to pray. Private prayer is a way to recharge your batteries, to digest your experiences, to relieve the weight of them, so that you can move forward refreshed into the future. We often read in the Gospels how Jesus spent time alone in prayer, in the company of his loving father God, whenever he could.

Most of us would probably benefit by following his example. Many of us have lost the habit of daily prayer, I think, and find it hard to do. The next time you find yourself awake with your mind racing in the middle of the night, why not spend a little time in prayer, perhaps just saying the Lord’s Prayer to yourself, or the 23rd Psalm, or remembering other well loved prayers? If you're anything like me, you will probably drop off in no time - and you might be surprised how refreshed you are when you wake up again!

Jesus knew his Hebrew scriptures very well. Quite likely he knew by heart Isaiah's beautiful poem, part of which was today’s 1st reading (Isaiah 40:21-31). He surely knew that:

those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

Perhaps it was as he prayed that Jesus found the strength to take his mission on to the next level.

Mark records that when Simon and the others found Jesus they chided him saying ‘Everyone is searching for you’. By then Jesus's mind was made up. ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do’, he said. And that is what he did – more crowds, more teaching, more healing, an unrelenting pressure, culminating in Jerusalem and the cross.

What was this message he proclaims? Earlier in his Gospel Mark summarises it in these words: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.’ Mark has rather compressed Jesus’s message, but this is how I understand it:
Jesus knows that the time is right for his great mission, which is to lead every one of us into the kingdom of God. In other words, his mission is to show us all how to be the men and women that God wants us to be. It is no less than the salvation of humanity.

What prevents us from being the people God wants us to be? We are all created in God’s image and in our heart of hearts we can all tell right from wrong – in other words we are souls with consciences. But we all know only too well - it is a matter of observation, if we are honest with ourselves - that we continually fail to live up to God’s standards. In other words we sin, and that cuts us off from God’s kingdom.

Jesus teaches us that God loves us, every one of us, as a father loves his children. But more than that Jesus teaches us that like a loving father, God will forgive our sins and allow us to enter his kingdom. All we have to do is to acknowledge them and repent – of course we have to really mean it, we must truly repent! It is this message of God’s loving-kindness that Jesus proclaims and asks us to believe.

So to conclude, let us give thanks for Jesus’s strength of purpose in his earthly mission.

Let us give thanks:

  • For his unfailing response to the need of others.
  • For his example of prayer.
  • And for his message of God’s loving-kindness, which he proclaims to us all.