Tuesday 8 August 2023


 A reflection at Morning Worship for the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 8th August 2023.

A 'Brocken Spectre' captured on Croagh Patrick.
The spectre is the shadow of a climber cast onto a mist below,
wrapped in a glory formed by sun light scattered
from water droplets in the mist.

A reflection on Luke’s account of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), Peter, James and John’s intense spiritual and emotional experience, set for last Sunday, the Feast of the Transfiguration.

Jesus has brought the three disciples with him high on a mountain to pray. There they see Jesus transfigured, in dazzling white clothing, his face changed, and alongside him Elijah and Moses. As cloud envelopes them they hear a voice saying, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him’. The same story is also told by Matthew and Mark.

Luke gives us a clue as to what the disciples saw, I think. They are high on a mountain, with cloud around. These are just the circumstances where we may 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.

Historically, the most famous example is the ‘Brocken Spectre’, seen by climbers 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. You may be lucky enough to see one yourself, as I did 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 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.

This physical explanation takes nothing away from the transfiguration story for me. Rather it helps me believe in the reality of the Transfiguration, that it was not invented by the Gospel writers to serve their own artistic or theological purposes. I believe that God is present in and works through the laws of the universe he created. Peter, James and John 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.

They are awed by what they see. They identify the three figures with Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Peter, always the impulsive one, 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. All three are terrified, and they hear a voice as if from heaven, saying ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’

This rings very true to me. When people suddenly understand something truly important, something which changes everything, they often talk of having a ‘flash of inspiration’ or ‘hearing a voice’. We may not have had such a religious experience ourselves, but we may have felt something like it. For instance, in the moment we realise that this very person I am with now is the one I want to spend the rest of my life with.

I believe the Transfiguration was the moment on their long road when Peter, James and John understood 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, the birth of the Church. They told no one about it at the time, but they never forgot this moment of insight, for they passed the story on to Matthew, Mark and Luke, and so to ourselves.

We too, in faith, can hear the voice of God say to us from the cloud, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’