Every year at this point of the year, the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, we read the story of Jesus on the mountain, when “his clothes became dazzling white”, and—quite amazingly—Moses and Elijah appear alongside him (Mark 9:2-8). This is a story which pierces the constraints of history, which gathers three greats of the faith together.
Alongside this story, on each of the three years in the lectionary cycle, we read a companion story from Hebrew Scripture. This year, we read a story about Elijah—the moment when he passes the mantle of his prophetic leadership to Elisha, and “ascended in a whirlwind into heaven” (1 Kings 2:1-12). This story also breaks open the constraints of how we normally see life, as the whirlwind whisks Elijah into the heavens.
Both stories are pertinent for the times we are living; both stories are relevant to the context of a global pandemic, rolling lockdowns, restrictions on social gatherings, and constraints on “life as normal” (at least as we knew it up to this point in time).
Both stories invite us to look carefully for those moments when things suddenly look different from what we were expecting. We had become so accustomed to life with no limits on travel, no constraints on gathering, shaking hands and hugging, eating together without a second thought, visiting friends and family in other suburbs, other cities, whenever we wished. All of those things have changed over the last year. Life is different. Our patterns of behaviour are different. Life looks very different.
Both stories invite us to undertake a process of discernment; to perceive how the heavenly realm is breaking into the earthly realm; to sense how the barrier between heaven and earth is opened wide. That’s the special gift of these stories at this time of the year, as this season of Epiphany draws to a close. Where is God, in what is happening to us now?
In Celtic Christian spirituality, such moments when we perceive just how different things are, are called “thin places”. The thin place offers an opportunity to glimpse a different dimension, to review the regularity of our lives, to grasp a vision of the deeper things of faith, to sense a deeper reality in the midst of the mundane.
Now, describing the onset of a global pandemic as a “thin place” is a big call. We need to be careful about how we describe an event that has resulted in millions of deaths, caused deep grief to many millions of people, stretched already over-stretched medical resources to breaking point, ensured that hundreds of millions of people will have long term enduring medical conditions well into the coming decade (and beyond), and upturned the way of life of almost every human being on the planet.
But could it be, that in this moment of challenge, overturning established patterns, reshaping familiar practices, reimagining ways of living—could it be that this was in fact a “thin place”, a moment when a force from beyond breaks into the mundane, when heavenly realities reset earthly patterns?
The stories in our readings this week invite us to consider how this might be.
The story of the Transfiguration tells of the moment that Peter, James, and John perceived Jesus in a new way. No longer did they see him as the man from Nazareth. In this moment, they see him as filled to overflowing with divine glory. He was not simply the son of Joseph; he was now the divinely-chosen, God-anointed, Beloved Son (Mark 9:7).
Jesus brings the heavenly realm right to the earthly disciples. They had the possibility, in that moment of time, to feel intensely close to the heavenly realm, to stand in the presence of God. They symbolise the desire of human beings, to reach out into the beyond, to grasp hold of what is transcendent—to get to heaven, as that is where God is (see Gen 28:10-12 and Deut 30:12; Pss 11:4, 14:2, 33:13, 53:2, 80:14, 102:19; although compare the sense of God being everywhere in Ps 139:8-12).
But how were they then to get to heaven, the perceived dwelling-place of God?
Elijah. The story of Elijah, known to these Jewish men from their religious upbringing, hearing the stories of scripture, offers one possibility. The account in 1 Kings 2 indicates that it might, indeed, be possible for a human being to go straight to heaven, to be with God. This was the experience of Elijah.
Elijah did not die; he was simply whisked up directly into heaven. He had a “get out of gaol free” card, as it were; go straight to heaven, do not pass the moment of death, go straight to heaven. If it was possible for him—could it not also be possible for us?
Elijah, on the mountain, standing beside the shining, dazzling figure of the transfigured Jesus, represents this possibility. Were the three followers of Jesus thinking about this possibility as they saw Jesus, transfigured, alongside Elijah?
Moses. Standing next to Elijah, however, was Moses. And Moses represents another, very different, way of gaining access to the presence of God. It was to Moses that the commandments of the Torah were given. It was to Moses that every tiny detail, every instruction and regulation and commandment of the Torah, was given, so that he might pass them on, in turn, to the people of Israel.
Following the way of holiness and obedience that was set forth in the Torah, was another way by which faithful people might gain access to heaven, the dwelling place of God. Obedience to the Law was the pathway, in this case.
Those who would diligently and scrupulously keep all the commandments which Moses had instructed, would find their pathway to heaven set forth with assurance. Such people would be finding heaven as their place of destiny, after they had achieved fulfilment of the laws. (Perhaps the claim of the rich man in Mark 10:17-20 reflects this kind of understanding.)
Were the three followers of Jesus thinking about this possibility as they saw Jesus, transfigured, alongside Moses? Did they envisage a pathway to heaven through their faithful obedience to all the prescriptions of Torah? After all, Jesus had explicitly affirmed those who keep the commandments as “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:28-34).
However, the larger story of Jesus, told in the various accounts created by the early evangelists, makes it clear that, for Jesus, and for those who follow him, neither of these pathways are, in fact, the way to gain access to the heavenly realm where God dwells.
Jesus. For Jesus, in contrast to Elijah, ascending into heaven in order to be with God, and Moses, advocating adherence to Torah in order to be with God, the aim is to bring the kingdom of heaven, and all that entails, into life on earth in the here and now.
“Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” ( Mart 6:10) is what Jesus is said to have instructed his followers to pray. His was a mission, not to enable his followers to ascend into heaven, but to bring down to earth, from the heavenly realm, the rule of God.
The moment of being transfigured, for Jesus, was a moment that signalled the gracious presence of God on earth, amongst the creatures of God’s creation. The transfigured Jesus, shining forth the glory of God on the mountaintop, symbolised the possibility, for his followers on the mountain, and for his followers in subsequent times and places, that they might have the glory of God shining from their lives in the here and now.
For us, today, as followers of Jesus in own time, that means that we are called into a commitment to serve others who are around us, to work for justice for those we encounter, to seek to do what is right here and now, to love our neighbours—immediate and far away—as we love ourselves and love God and God’s ways.
As we do this, we might realise that keeping the law offered in the covenant with God is integral to our discipleship; and whilst we fix our vision on the ultimate goal (heaven—the kingdom of God—the vision of God’s way—whatever we might call it), the work that we undertake in the here and now is actually the full realisation of that ultimate goal.
As the story of Jesus itself indicates, the way that Jesus took to realising the reality of heaven on earth is through submission and death. The Apostles Creed affirms that Jesus “descended to the dead; on the third day he rose again”. Jesus models the pathway of dying to self in order to rise as a new self. All of this takes place within this life, for the sake of this life.
Following Jesus. The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is surrounded by teachings which highlight this central element for his faithful followers. Immediately before ascending to the mountaintop, Jesus states that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31).
He follows this with a clear word of commission to his followers: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (8:34-35).
Soon after the transfiguration, after returning to the level plain, Jesus repeats his words, that “the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (9:31), and then offers a variant of his central claim on his followers: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (9:35).
And for a third time, some time later on, Jesus declares, “we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (10:34-35), followed, once more, by clear instructions to his followers: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:43-44).
This is what it means to perceive the glory of God in our midst in the transfigured Jesus, and to commit to follow him in all of life—here, now, in the present. And this story invites us to look at our present times with new eyes—to see the glory of God in our midst in unexpected and enlivening ways!