Next Sunday, the Gospel reading will be the Transfiguration. This year, we will hear Matthew's telling of the event.
I wrote a reflection on the Transfiguration this time last year [LINK], when we had Luke's version. I thought it would be helpful to compare the two, and see what the differences were. For good measure, I took a look at Mark as well.
But what struck me was not the differences, but a point of similarity — fear. All three evangelists tell how the disciples present at the Transfiguration were "very much afraid" (Mathew), "so terrified" (Mark), or "frightened" (Luke).
The evangelists don't agree on exactly what it was that scared the disciples. In Matthew, they become afraid when they hear the voice of God (saying "this is my Son the beloved"). In Mark, they are afraid even before they hear this. In Luke, they become afraid when a dense cloud descends. But all three gospels agree on the fact of fear.
Fear of the Lord
In fact, in scripture fear is pretty much the standard reaction to a theophany, or manifestation of God. When they hear the voice of God, Adam and Eve hide because they are afraid. Elijah wraps his face in his cloak and falls to the ground rather than look at God. And, at the other end of the bible, when the narrator of Revelations catches sight of the son of man, he tells us that "I fell down at his feet as though dead".
When I was a child, I heard the phrase "fear of the Lord". It puzzled me. The God presented to me by my parents and teachers was a loving God; what was there to be afraid of, and why should being afraid of Him be regarded as a virtue? Surely, if anything, to fear God implied that you doubted his love, or at least did not trust it?
And yet the scriptural evidence is clear. However faithful we are, however much we try to love and serve him, when God gets close, we get scared. And, yes, I think if I ever did have some enormously impressive and apparently supernatural encounter with God, I think I'd be pretty scared too.
What's going on here? I think what we are actually scared of is not God, but ourselves. We cannot hide before God; we cannot pretend. There can be no face-saving evasions or little white lies. The little pretences and masks and images that we construct to protect our self-image and our relationships with others are stripped away. God knows us intimately, completely, including all our faults and failing and weaknesses and contradictions and hypocrisies. To confront God, then, is to confront your own inadequacies and failings; to know that they are laid bare. Who wouldn't find that a bit scary?
But it's not just the fear of being seen as we truly are that scares us; there's the knowledge that God call us to become what we are called to be. The journey from who we are to who we could be is a frightening one, not least because we cannot know where it will lead us.
The three tents…
As well as agreeing about the fear, all three gospels agree on another point; Peter suggests making "three tents" on the mountain for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, and it is the making of this suggestion which brings to an end the transfiguration event.
What the tents mean, I think, is Peter's desire for himself and the others to remain where they are for a while, to hold onto the moment. It is, after all, a wonderful moment; a mountain-top experience. They saw Jesus in his glory standing with the mightiest prophet and the greatest lawgiver. No wonder they wanted to stop things right there. But by the very fact of trying to hold on to transfiguration, they bring transfiguration to an end.
The call to transfiguration…
Even if we don't have a mountain-top experience, we tend to settle down, too. We reach a point in life where we expect that there are not many more journeys to take or conversions to make. What is going to happen has pretty much happened. We feel that we have "arrived" at the person we were becoming. We expect no more transfigurations.
Abraham was seventy-five when God called him. At seventy-five you've pretty well seen the landscape. Your achievements, and your mistakes, are largely behind you. Not much more is to be expected.
But for Abraham there was a new call: "Leave your home and your country and head off. I'll show you where to go. You'll know the place when you get there. I'll make a great nation of you out of nothing." And Abraham gathered his family and his things, and hit the road. It would take twenty-five more years more for the promised covenant even to take shape. And it was later still when Isaac, his son, was born, and it was through Isaac that he was to become the father of a great nation, as God had promised. It was another hundred years before Abraham was to die. It's a good thing he hadn't settled down permanently in his seventies.
We have such great heroes. When Abraham heard a new call in his eighth decade, he answered it, though it must have seemed like madness even to him. He could have stayed in his tent, like Peter wanted to, but he didn't. He embarked on such a long journey, going to he knew not where.
Peter overcame the tent temptation too. When he set off down the mountain, he had little or no idea of the experiences that would transfigure him, but he went down to Jerusalem, to be a weak and reluctant witness to the passion and death of Christ. And, afterwards, to be a witness to his resurrection, to preach the gospel, to defend the Christian community before the Temple elders, to leadership, to prison, to exile, to martyrdom.
God calls each of us to our own transfiguration — to make the journey from who we are to who we can be. It's unlikely to take place on a mountain-top, and it probably won't involve dazzling robes, accompanying angels or voices from heaven. It will probably be less dramatic than Abraham's or Peter's. But we'll never even start the journey if we stay in our tents.
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