Sunday 10 February 2013

Shining Faces

The common thread between today’s readings is shining faces.
In the OT reading (Exodus 34:29-35) we heard how the Israelites saw the skin of Moses’ face shine when he came down from Mount Sinai with the stone tablets of the covenant – what we know as the Ten Commandments.

In the NT reading (Luke 9:28-36) Luke tells us how Peter and John and James saw Jesus’s face change – shining, as Matthew tells us - and his clothes become dazzling white, in the event we call the Transfiguration.

So today I want to reflect a little about shining faces and what they mean for us.

First, let’s think about Moses’ shining face.
The background to the story is that this is the second time that Moses came down from Mount Sinai with stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. The first time, he discovered that the Israelites had broken their covenant with the Lord, the God they called YHWH – Moses found them worshipping a Golden Calf made by Aaron. In a fury Moses smashed the stone tablets on the ground and ordered a massacre of those responsible. After Moses pleaded with the Lord not to desert the Israelite people, the Lord had relented. So for a second time Moses climbed Mount Sinai and returned forty days and nights later with another pair of tablets, to a very different reception.

The Israelites were afraid to come near Moses because his face was shining, we are told. I wonder if what happened the first time might also have put them off. He put on a veil to cover his face, which he only took off when he went into the tent pitched a little away from the Israelite encampment where he went to meet the Lord alone, to pray.

What are we to make of Moses shining face? Is this a miraculous light, or had he perhaps got sunburned in the 40 days on the mountain? I prefer to look at it in another way.

Even today we talk about lovers or brides, pregnant women and new mothers looking ‘radiant’ – it is the light of joy in their faces which we recognise by tiny almost imperceptible clues – they don’t glow in the dark, but they do look somehow different to how they looked before their joy.

I think this is the meaning of the haloes that are used in many religious traditions – not just by Christians, but by Muslims and Buddhists for instance – to mark out holy people or saints. Haloes depict the light of joy that comes from a close encounter with the divine, a symbolic reflection of God’s love for his saints.

And I think we should see in Moses’ shining face a mark of his joy at encountering the Lord, a reflection of God’s love for him and for his people Israel.

So what of Jesus’s Transfiguration?
The story is told by Matthew and Mark as well as Luke, in almost identical words – indeed scholars suggest that both Matthew and Luke made use of Mark’s earlier account.

The bones of the common story they tell are these. Jesus took Peter and John and James with him up a mountain. There Jesus was transfigured before them, with his face shining and his clothes dazzling white. And beside him the three disciples saw two other figures, which they identified with Elijah and Moses.  Peter said to Jesus, ‘It is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’. Then a cloud overshadowed them and they heard a voice saying, ‘This is my Son … listen to him’. And when the cloud cleared they saw only Jesus by himself.

Now a high mountain and clouds are just the circumstances where we can see an unusual optical effect called a ‘glory’. In a ‘glory’ sunlight is scattered back from water droplets in a mist, forming a glowing halo – the technical term is Mie scattering. An example is the ‘Brocken Spectre’, named for the highest peak in the Harz Mountains in Germany. This appears when a low sun is behind a climber looking downwards into mist from a ridge – the spectre is the shadow of the observer projected onto the mist and surrounded by the glowing halo of a glory. You might be lucky enough to see one yourself, as I did, looking down from a plane at the shadow it cast on a cloud, surrounded by a halo of light.

I imagine Peter and John and James close together on the mountain, with Jesus a little bit away, praying by himself as was his custom, as the clouds swirl around them. Suddenly, where Jesus has been standing, they each see a glowing figure – it’s their own shadow cast on a cloud, wrapped in a glory – and two other shadows beside it, which are those of their companions. Peter, always the impulsive one, identifies the three figures with Jesus, Moses and Elijah. When the cloud envelopes them they are terrified, and in a sudden flash of inspiration they understand, as if they had heard God say it, that they must listen to Jesus as God’s Son.

This is speculation, of course, and not just mine. But if it is true that we can understand the effects surrounding Transfiguration as physics and not as a miracle, it should not weaken our faith one jot,  in any sense. Rather it makes it easier to believe the event actually happened, and therefore it strengthens the case that the Gospels are reliable accounts. The Evangelists might not have understood the physics, as we can, but they did not just invent the story to serve their artistic and theological needs.

The real miracle, I suggest, is how the Transfiguration affected the disciples.
They did not tell anyone about their experience, Luke tells us – indeed Matthew and Mark both say Jesus forbade them to. But they remembered it, how important it seemed to them, for they passed their story on through Mark to Matthew and Luke, and so to us.

The voice that Peter, John and James heard told them to listen to Jesus. And that is just what they did. Jesus taught them as they travelled with him the road that lead to Jerusalem, to the Cross, to the Resurrection, to the Ascension, and on to Pentecost, when they began to blossom as Christ’s body, the Church.

I think the Transfiguration was the moment on their long road when their complete commitment to Jesus was confirmed.

And we are surely meant to understand that his shining face and the dazzling light are, in fact, a reflection of Jesus’s joy in his Father’s love, for himself, for all creation - and for us.