“And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”
“And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. “
– The Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 17, verses 1 through 8, English Standard Version
In the Novel “Angela’s Ashes”, and the movie that is based upon it, Frank McCourt tells the story of his miserable and greatly deprived childhood in Roman Catholic Ireland. It’s a wonder that he survived his childhood at all, and indeed four of his brothers and his only sister all died.
The family was so poor that they never knew when the next meal would appear. They lived on the upper floor of their house because the ground floor was flooded with rain water. The father, because he came from Northern Ireland and was therefore rejected by the southern Irish, was constantly out of work. Unable to cope with trying to feed his large family, he became an alcoholic and eventually disappeared altogether. And in the manner of the times, the children were treated extremely harshly at school.
After such an upbringing many people would become brutalized, and perhaps turn to crime. But Frank McCourt had a dream which he kept always before him and which he clung to throughout the worst of times. He’d actually been born in America, and the family had returned to Ireland when they found themselves destitute in America. But young Frank was grimly determined to return to the land of opportunity which he only dimly remembered. He achieved his dream later in his life.
He made good in America and eventually was able to use his appalling childhood to good effect, for amidst all the horror, “Angela’s Ashes” is both moving and poignant, and gently amusing.
In a way Somehow, Frank McCourt seems to have redeemed and transformed his terrible childhood. Or perhaps God has transformed and redeemed it for him, and Frank McCourt has seized the opportunity for redemption which God offered him.
Peter, James and John, the three disciples Jesus took with him up onto the Mount of Transfiguration, were just ordinary people. They weren’t particularly spiritual, they didn’t understand very much and they weren’t even particularly reliable. For although they were the three singled out after the Last Supper to watch with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, they all failed to stay awake. And along with the other disciples, they all deserted Jesus when the crunch came.
So although they had this amazing mountaintop experience of transfiguration, and heard God speaking to them from a cloud, nothing much changed for them initially. It was only years later, after Jesus had died and had risen again, that those early experiences came into their own and Peter, James and John became the acknowledged leaders of the early church.
In the play Cats by Andrew Lloyd Weber, there was memorable scene in which Old Deuteronomy, the oldest cat says: “We had the experience, but we missed the meaning” . How often that is true. There is the experience and there is the meaning of the experience and we can very well go through life experiencing one thing after another and never think of the meaning. In this way life sometimes becomes for us a dull parade of events. We get bogged down on the details of living and never ask, “what’s the meaning of this?”
The Transfiguration of Jesus is a window into the very meaning of Jesus’ life. They say that a picture speaks a thousand words and that is what we are given in the Transfiguration. The three disciples in the story had been through events with Jesus day by day. They had an experience with Jesus, but here in this picture they were given the meaning of his life.
Perhaps it’s significant that God spoke from a cloud. A cloud was a recognized medium for encountering God. Back in the early days of wandering in the wilderness led by Moses some 1,500 years before the time of Jesus, God had guided the Ancient Israelites by going before them in a cloud. The Jews always looked back to that time in the wilderness as the golden years, the halcyon age when God was very much present with his people. So Peter, James and John would immediately be aware of God’s presence in a cloud.
But maybe a cloud also describes how they felt about things at the time. Jesus had already begun to talk to them about his coming death and about the suffering involved in his death, which must have made unsettling and disturbing listening. The glorious revelation of Jesus as God at this event of the transfiguration, perhaps goes some way towards counterbalancing the fear and anxiety generated by Jesus’ talk of approaching death.
It’s interesting that the two figures seen on either side of Jesus were two people considered by the Jews never to have died. According to the end of the book of Deuteronomy, God himself took Moses, and according to the second book of Kings, Elijah was carried up to heaven in a whirlwind.
Moses was the bringer of the law, and considered to be the great leader of the Jewish people. Elijah represented the prophets, that other great strand in Old Testament history. The prophets were those people who were closest to God and who interpreted and conveyed God’s wishes.
According to prophecy, Elijah was expected to appear first, before the coming Messiah. Jesus later identified Elijah in the person of John the Baptist, the forerunner.
At the transfiguration, Jesus is seen as the central figure flanked by Moses and Elijah, and therefore more important than either of them. So the implication is that although God spared Moses and Elijah from the normal processes of death, his own beloved son must suffer and die. But the very fact of the transfiguration hints that Jesus’ glory will overcome even his death.
A few people seemed to have enjoyed mountaintop experiences, where they have an overwhelming spiritual revelation of some sort. But just as only a quarter of the disciples experienced the glory of the Transfiguration, so not everybody has those kind of experiences.
Most of us muddle along in a bit of a cloud, not quite knowing exactly where we’re going, and not able to see the way ahead all too clearly. And most of us experience clouds from time to time. But they’re not necessarily white, fluffy clouds. Just as in the life of the author of “Angela’s Ashes” The clouds which gather over human lives often appear dark and ominous and threatening.
So it’s worth remembering that no matter how glorious the transfiguration experience, God didn’t speak at all during it, but instead he spoke afterwards from the cloud which followed it and which overshadowed them.
And, when God did speak, he simply repeated the words used at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”
Perhaps when we’re overshadowed by cloud, we sometimes expect God to give very specific directions, telling us exactly what to do and how to do it. But if we’re expecting that, maybe we fail to hear the quiet voice and the gentle message which simply says, “Listen!”
The Transfiguration of Jesus does not just takes place as an event in Scripture. It can take place in your life at any time and almost anywhere. It takes place anywhere where you suddenly see the meaning of Jesus in your life, when his light and power overshadows you, when faith becomes alive, and you want to commit yourself to his vision. Listening to God can transfigure lives.
Although he may not have been aware of it, Frank McCourt, the author of “Angela’s Ashes” was able to listen sufficiently during the dark and overshadowing cloud of his appalling early childhood, to enable a later sort of transfiguration of his life.
And although it wasn’t immediately apparent, those ordinary disciples listened sufficiently to God’s voice in the cloud to enable their lives to be transfigured at a later date.
Perhaps if those of us who would wish to see our lives transfigured, should simply listen to God when the clouds are overshadowing us.