Tuesday 16 February 2021



A reflection on St Mark's account of the transfiguration, given at Morning Worship for the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 16th February 2021

A Brocken Spectre, captured at Glencoe
for more on the science see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glory_(optical_phenomenon)

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.

In today’s reading (Mark 9:2-9), Mark tells the story of three disciple’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 identify 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 they 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 them as the Christ, the Son of God. They must have felt it was immensely important, because they remembered it and passed on their story after the Resurrection, so that it could be told to us not just by Mark, but also by Matthew and Luke.

There may be a 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. It 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. Try googling ‘Brocken Spectre’ to find photos of it.

You might be lucky enough to see a glory yourselves, as I have. I saw one 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 is their own shadow cast onto a cloud, and wrapped in a glory. The other two figures they see, whom they take to be Moses and Elijah, are the shadows of their companions. Is it significant, I wonder, that each disciple sees his own shadow transfigured?

This explanation from physics convinces me that the Transfiguration was not imagined, but a real event. 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, as we can now.

If this 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 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. The voice they heard told them to listen to him, and this is what they did. From then on Jesus intensified his teaching to them, preparing them for their role as apostles after his death.

The Transfiguration is, I think, the moment on their long road when they gave 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 one of us to make our own commitment to follow Jesus as his disciple, wherever that may take us.