After university I went to Kenya as a CMS Volunteer, and worked in a technical training school in Nairobi. I met Rachel in Kenya, as she was another CMS (which became known among us as the Church’s Marriage Society, for obvious reasons) Volunteer. Rachel lived in a beautiful spot called Mugumo, just south and on the slopes of Mt. Kenya. Another friend of ours taught at school just around the mountain at Kiamutugu.
This friend had studied theology at Durham, so his pupils got rather good RE lessons. The school was an ‘harambe’, or self-help school, cheaply constructed with classrooms, plain block wall and tin roofs, looking out over a large playing field, plain brick walls and a tin roof. One day he was teaching them about theophanies, or when God reveals himself directly, and is often used for dramatic events like the pillar of cloud and fire that went before the Israelites in the desert, or the clouds and thunder on Mt. Sinai when Moses received the law. After talking about theophany, David went to the classroom door, opened it, and immediately a bolt of lightning, framed by the door, struck the field outside, and there was a tremendous crash of thunder. He calmly shut the door, turned round, and went back to his desk, while the children stared, frozen in absolute shock at this muzungu who could call God’s wrath from the sky.
The Transfiguration is a theophany, with God speaking directly to the disciples from the cloud: This is my Son, whom I have chosen – listen to him. It appears in all the synoptic gospels (Matthew 171-8, Mark 92-8, Luke 928-36) and is referred to in 2 Peter 116-18, and maybe John 114 (We saw his glory, the glory which he received as the Father’s only Son.). It stands out with other significant events in Jesus life: the star and other signs around the nativity; Jesus’ baptism, when God says This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased.’ (Matthew 317); and the earthquake, darkness and rending of the temple curtain at Jesus’ death (Matthew 2745, 51-52).
What is the Transfiguration about? It is a strange mixture of elements. It is clearly an endorsement of Jesus, as God’s Son and messenger: listen to him. Jesus is the link between earth and heaven. The presence of Moses and Elijah, the pre-eminent messengers of God in the Old Testament, emphasises Jesus’ importance, and God is now singling him out, above Moses and Elijah, as the one to listen to. Yet it is only seen by three disciples, Peter, James and John, who were asleep for first bit, and then afterwards are told to keep it a secret. In Mark’s gospel they are told to wait until after Jesus had risen from the dead, a phrase which confused them. The Transfiguration is proof that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, but hardly anyone knew about it. It is a rare theophany, something that would have remained with Peter, James and John all their lives, but not something Jesus ever mentioned to the crowds, a miracle Jesus wanted no-one to know about.
I wonder if it was also to comfort and strengthen Jesus. It says that Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah about the way in which he would soon fulfil God’s purpose by dying in Jerusalem (in Greek it says they spoke about his ‘exodus’, his leaving). We know, from the story of the Garden of Gethsemane (|Matthew 2626-46) – another occasion when the disciples were asleep – that Jesus, quite naturally, struggled with the path he was on. He knew, even here, that his path lead to Jerusalem and death, and though he was God, we was also human, and he was afraid. Here are Moses -the Law, Elijah – the Prophets, and God – the Father, encouraging him in what he had to do.
The Transfiguration also points to the resurrection, and the hope associated with that. Jesus is seen transformed, like the resurrection body. The disciples also see Moses (who died) and Elijah (who was taken up to heaven, but a long time before), are still very much alive and present. God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. This is where Jesus ministry will end, not just for him, but for all who follow him.
I quite like that this was a quiet event. It was not flashy, seeking publicity, in front of a crowd, to make Jesus a celebrity. It is understated, workmanlike. What is important here is Jesus relationship with his Father, the preparation for his ministry. A few trusted friends are let into the secret too, into something that they do not fully understand at the time, but would do later. It is not something they can bottle or keep, or even extend, as Peter tries to do. But as they went on to found Christ’s church, this was there to support them in hard times and challenges.
For us? God will come to us too in times of challenge. Probably not with glowing figures from the Bible, but with friends, or inner encouragement from something; a prayer, a passage, a view, a story… Our theophanies may not be actual thunderbolts, but they can be like a thunderbolt in the way they change us. And Jesus, the reason for us being here in church at all, is shown as God’s messenger in the most powerful way: listen to him!