We’ve just heard the Gospel of the Transfiguration. It’s not what we’d expect. Such a contrast to last Sunday! Last Sunday it was the desert, a world of heat and sand and stones and dryness and hunger, and that strange grim battle between Jesus and the Tempter. This Sunday it’s a ‘high mountain’. There’s aloneness here too, but of another kind. Here is Jesus, not exhausted by hunger, but transfigured, his face shining like the sun and his clothes white as the light. Here are Moses and Elijah, representing the Old Covenant, the Law and the Prophets. Here are the three disciples representing all of us. Here is the beloved Son in his human body, the Father in the voice, the Holy Spirit in the luminous cloud.
It’s an extraordinary moment. And we may wonder, what has this to do with Lent and Easter, and with us? Here we are, not on a mountain, but just off Union St, and probably not feeling especially transfigured.
Here’s one approach. ‘Lent is the special season for the ascent to the holy mountain of Easter’ (Ceremonial of Bishops 249). So, Easter is a mountain and Lent is our journey to it. Jesus is taking us on it and its goal is a new, deeper vision of him. We are on this climb. We go up in company, with Peter, James and John, symbols of the universal Church, symbols of our fellow-disciples here and now, symbols of those whose ministry is to lead this journey and its liturgies. We are keeping these successive Sundays with their magnificent readings. For those who’ll be baptised at Easter, we’ve had the Rite of Election and we’ll be having the Scrutinies here. In different churches round the City on Fridays there are the Station Masses. There’ll be a Penitential Service here. At the other end of the diocese this year, there will be the Chrism Mass. All of this, along with our own private efforts, is climbing the mountain. We go up to that explosion of light, the Easter Vigil, when purple and red vestments give way to white and a darkened church is transfigured by a crescendo of candlelight and each face comes out of the dark. The Holy Spirit overshadows the water for baptism and the ears of faith can hear the Father’s voice saying to the newly-baptised, and all of us, ‘You are my beloved child, son, daughter.’ And in the Eucharist, Jesus risen from the dead comes to us, touches us, and says. ‘Stand up, do not be afraid.’
There’s one reason for having this Gospel. It really puts us on track.
Let’s go a little deeper though. What has Easter got for us?
If we’re not yet baptised, it’s clear: a public profession of faith, being washed in baptism, anointed in Confirmation and receiving Holy Communion for the first time.
But what about the rest of us, already baptised? It’s not so clear-cut, not so dramatic, it’s unlikely to have the same emotional impact. Perhaps something Pope Leo the Great said can help here: ‘Easter is when the whole Church rejoices over the forgiveness of sins…not only those freshly reborn through baptism, but…us others who for some time have been counted among God’s adopted children’ (Sermon 6 on Lent). The forgiveness of sins. That’s what comes to us from the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. We all need it. It’s there every day, but especially now, the days of Lent and Easter. This is a time of special mercy. It’s a time to put ourselves right with God. And if there is something seriously adrift in our lives, some area crying out for grace, this is very much the favourable time. Let me be old-fashioned: ‘You shall confess your sins at least once a year. You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season’ (CCC 2042). Two precepts of the Church, the Easter duties, as we say – a minimum. But the forgiveness of sins, be it the full welcoming back of Christ into our lives, or a deeper welcoming, that’s a transfiguration too.
So what awaits us on the mountain of Easter? The illumination of baptism for some, the forgiveness of sins for us all. Two things and in and through all them, a third, the renewal of our faith. ‘Don’t sell the family silver’ is a wise maxim. And not only shouldn’t we sell it, but every now and then we should take it out and make it shine again. That’s what we do at the Easter Vigil, when we renew our baptismal promises. ‘Do you believe in God, the Father almighty? I do. Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord? I do. Do you believe in the Holy Spirit? I do.’ Back to our Gospel then. I think that when the disciples came down the mountain, they weren’t the same. Even unconsciously, their faith had been strengthened. What it means to believe had been shown them.
Faith is a light. It is seeing things in God’s light. Jesus transfigured was still recognisably Jesus, but the disciples had seen the divinity shining through his humanity. And when we come down the mountain of Easter or the mountain of prayer or any Mass, life is still the same – sometimes dark, sometimes bright, sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter. But now we can see it all in the light of God. Such is faith.
Now, like the disciples, we understand a little more God’s great story for us, how it runs from creation through Moses and Elijah and the Incarnation and the Church to the glory to come, and we have a place within it. Faith shows us that.
Now, we know, God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Such is faith.
Now, like the disciples, we can be a little less scared about what’s ahead of us. We’ve been touched by Jesus. That is Easter, that is faith.
‘And when they raised their eyes they saw no one but only Jesus’. That was their share there and then in the resurrection. And such is faith. In and through and beyond everything in our lives, it is seeing Jesus, the risen One.
‘Let us walk in joy and think of our Saviour.’ It’s an old Dominican saying. Let’s set our inner compasses. We are on our way to the mountain of Easter. We are on our way to the mountain of God.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen