Exodus 24.12 – 18: John 12.27 – 36a
The first reading from the Book of Exodus shaped the traditions of transfiguration that we find in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. The event points simultaneously to the YHWH’s presence among the people, and the uniqueness of Moses who alone enters the cloud. The “glory of the Lord” remains an awesome, transcendent, Holy Other, whose glory descends upon the mountain.
Many of us seek a sense of the transcendent, the numinous, the holy, something outside of ourselves that will cause awe and wonder. To ascend a mountain is a battle of human will against gravity. But something else happens. Setting our sights firmly on the heights above we climb up from the reality of the earth below, save only to watch where we place our feet! On a sunny day this experience can become dazzling and for a moment we may sense being carried away by an overwhelming feeling of wonder and awe. Such seems to have been the experience of the disciples, as told in the synoptic gospels.
John’s Gospel is completely different in style and content from the synoptic gospels. Our second reading follows on from the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead and Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
In this transfiguration story the crowd hears a voice from heaven when Jesus asked, “Father, glorify your name.” And the voice says, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” [v.28] The crowd compare the voice with thunder and some believe an angel has spoken. John’s transfiguration moment however is not about securing the Jesus of the future as king; instead he points to the real human struggle, the change that is to take place in Jesus’s life.
The crowd do not understand what is happening but Jesus knows; he knows that his time has come, that death awaits him. The crowd questions, “How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this the Son of Man?” [v.34b] The crowd would have recalled “a” son of man, referred to in the Book of Daniel, the one who appears in heaven, receiving dominion and glory [Daniel 7.13-14]. This fits with the pre-resurrection understanding of Jesus that he another charismatic healer and preacher; and in the account of other gospels, where Peter regards Jesus as a prophet equivalent to Moses and Elijah.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus does not need confirmation of who he is. In John’s eyes, this had been made clear at the very beginning of his Gospel. God has never been seen, whereas the Son made him known. So what we have in the two readings is a contrast between the Son as revealer; Moses mediated the law, Christ mediated grace and truth.
Jesus reflects on his situation. “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – “Father, save me from this hour”? The transformation that Jesus will have to go through will be unspeakably hard.
Transformation in us can be hard too. Ascending the mountain is hard; moving from the safe security of our everyday lives to another place, a place of difficulty, perhaps even danger. Given the choice, we’d rather remain where we are, in a safe place. But then we glimpse what we might be. So what do we do? Do we just sit and wait? For what? For the right moment? For the answer to all our questions?
Perhaps an angel from heaven shows up, or a voice is heard. It happens. And we are not prepared for what is being said. “I don’t want to be transformed. Keep things the way they are”, we say. Perhaps we hope the moment will just pass by.
In John’s Gospel, the focus is about participating in the eternal wisdom of God, manifest in Jesus, and made present by the Holy Spirit. “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” [vv.35-36]
I’ve been reflecting on these words when considering our present world political situation. It would appear that our inherited political institutions are creaking and groaning under the pressures of the day and are in need of transformation. We’re living in a dangerous vacuum, in a polarising world. On the one hand, ‘the powers that be’ appear less able to cope and to offer pragmatic solutions, while so-called populists distract us, and we seem to be suffering from an almost total loss of any sense of direction in our affairs, walking in darkness.
In John’s Gospel, there will be no sudden end of history and the overthrow of the Roman Empire under the Messiah, the Son of God, rather the incarnation of eternal time and wisdom, regenerating a new society of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the fulfilment of the prophetic tradition. In his person the kingdom of God is made real, a conscious relationship of shared love of beauty, truth and friendship.
It is in this sense that Jesus is Son of God, and the Christ through whom God’s will for the liberation of all creation from the darkness will be achieved. If we do not share in this life of Christ we shall remain in darkness. We too can aspire to become ‘children of the light’.[v.36] And there is no point at which this cannot happen. If we follow the light, then we will come to know the true light, embodied in Jesus Christ, the eternal Son.
As ordinary disciples of Christ, we may feel we are ascending the holy mountain to the light. We try to do the best we can, stumbling on the way. Transformation will rarely be immediate. More likely it will be found in the long, hard, and often difficult path through a broken landscape.
But it’s a journey we need to make. Amen.