Sunday 11 February 2018

Mountain top experiences

Address given at Templederry, St Mary's Nenagh & Killodiernan on Transfiguration Sunday, 11th February 2018, the Sunday before Lent, Year B

Mountain tops are special places, places where we feel awed by the immensity of God’s creation.
When the weather is good, the distant views reveal how puny we really are. When the clouds close in, we experience isolation from all that is familiar. And when the wind blows rain or hail or snow in our face, we understand our own frailty and vulnerability.

Like most of us, I suppose, I love walking and climbing in mountains – though I’m not so limber as I once was. I have vivid memories of many climbs. I remember climbing Keeper Hill as a child with my parents, how each time I thought I had reached the top another ridge revealed itself, until at the final summit half of Ireland was laid out in front of me. I remember climbing a peak called Le Dent du Chat near Annecy in France as a teenager, where close to the top, Mont Blanc and the snow peaks of the alps began to rise above the opposite ridge. And I remember climbing Lugnaquilla by myself in my 40s - on a whim, unsuitably prepared – after a few minutes on the summit the cloud closed in and it grew cold, very cold – I was lucky to fall in with a soldier with a compass walking from the Glen of Imaal to Glenmalure who showed me the right way down.

In today’s Gospel (Mark 9:2-9), Mark tells the story of Peter, James and John’s very special mountain top experience.
High on the mountain, Peter, James and John see Jesus ‘transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white’ – his appearance is changed: the Greek word translated as ‘transfigured’ is from the same root as ‘metamorphosis’. Alongside him they see two figures talking to him, whom they recognise as Elijah and Moses, the two preeminent figures of Judaism, representing the Law and the Prophets.

Peter, always the impulsive one, says, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’. Peter does not want this emotional moment to end – such a human response!

Then the cloud closes in around them.  They are terrified. And they hear a voice saying, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!’ When the cloud clears they look around, and can see only Jesus, who orders them not to tell anyone what they have experienced, ‘until the Son of Man (has) risen from the dead’.

Their experience, which we call the Transfiguration, reveals Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God. It must have been very important to them, because they remembered it and after the Resurrection passed on their story, so that it could be told to us not just by Mark, but also by Matthew and Luke.

There is a possible scientific explanation for what Peter, James and John saw.
High on a mountain, with cloud around, is precisely where we may 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 it is Mie scattering.

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. Here is a photo of one, and if you’re interested you can follow the web link to find out more.

The Brocken Spectre – if you are interested in more of the physics 

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 imagine Peter and James and John close together on the mountain, with Jesus praying a little bit away, as the clouds swirl around them. Where Jesus has been standing, 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, whom they take to be Moses and Elijah.

This explanation from physics 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.

Their experience of hearing a voice from heaven also rings very true to me. When someone suddenly realises something of vital importance, something which changes everything, he or she often talks of having a ‘flash of inspiration’ or ‘hearing a voice’. Many people have reported such deeply emotional religious experiences, not only in our own Christian tradition, but also in other faith traditions.

If this scientific explanation is correct, it should not change one whit our awe and wonder at God’s power and glory.
What matters, surely is what the Transfiguration reveals to Peter, James and John - and to us too - about the nature of Jesus and his relationship with God.

They saw Jesus transfigured, as ‘the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’, in St Paul’s words from today’s 2nd reading (2 Corinthians 4:3-6). The voice they heard told them to listen to him, and this surely is what they did. From then on Jesus intensified his teaching to them, 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 their 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 Christ’s Church.

And as Christians it should inspire each of us to make our own commitment to follow Jesus as his disciples. ‘For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’.

Let us finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word Transfiguration Sunday.
Holy God,
you have revealed the glory of your love in Jesus Christ,
and have given us a share in your Spirit.
May we who listen to Christ follow faithfully,
and, in the dark places where you send us,
reveal the light of your gospel.
We ask this in his name. Amen