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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

On a Snow-Capped Mountain: Transfiguration then and now

There is a physical geography in today’s gospel and there is a geography of the soul. St Matthew tells us that Jesus and three disciples went up a ‘high’ mountain. Which one? There is only one serious candidate for me, and that is Mount Hermon in the far north of what is now Israel. We know from the previous chapter that Jesus has been in the district of Caesarea Philippi where Peter confesses him to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Here the infant River Jordan flows out of a mysterious cave in the cliff where there was once a shrine to the god Pan. I have a precious relic from this numinous place, a piece of limestone from the river bed that I brought back from a pilgrimage there. The headwaters of Jordan rise behind the cliff on the south-west flank of the great Hermon range. At nearly 3000 metres high, it is covered with snow for most of the year, a towering backdrop to the borderlands of Lebanon, Syria and Israel. This gleaming white mountain is my candidate for the transfiguration despite the claims made for Mount Tabor, which is much further south and just a modest hillock compared to Hermon. ‘His clothes became dazzling white’ says Matthew, and even if this is not persuasive, the three summits of the massif seem to echo the threefold company of Jesus, Moses and Elijah.

Israelis in Galilee call Hermon ‘the eyes of the nation’, a poetic epithet for a sinister purpose, which is to be home to Israel’s strategic early warning system located on one of its summits. For this is troubled territory. When I was there we were driven through the Golan Heights, the ancient hills where, as every chorister knows from the Psalms, Og was king of Bashan. This is occupied Syrian territory, and I wondered what risks we ran by driving through it in tourist buses.  It was not reassuring to pass through a ruined Syrian village, shot to rubble by Israeli artillery in the Six Day War. On both sides of the road alarming signs with skull and crossbones warned of minefields. With the tragedy of Syria in all our minds today, the memory of stopping beneath the foothills of Hermon and looking into Syria is strong.  Near here the ancient Via Maris headed towards Damascus only about 50 km away, with the memory of St Paul’s transfiguring encounter on that road. We could see beautiful vineyards and cherry orchards in blossom; but we could also see watch towers, radio transmission posts, barbed wire and army barracks, for these are turbulent, troubled landscapes.

In these foothills of Hermon is the wonderful castle of Subeibe which we visited. It has both an Arab and a Crusader history.  The ruin is set on a spectacular spur from which there are marvellous views across to the mountain. The fortress
was built in the 13th century by a nephew of the Islamic warrior Saladin to pre-empt an attack on Damascus by Crusaders. I have to confess that it was a relief from the holy sites which can become a shade oppressive when you are seeing so many in a short time. There were no biblical associations in these underground cisterns, winding staircases and forbidding towers. Yet the very existence of this fortress underlined how this sunny landscape held a dark side, for it has been fought over since the dawn of time, and the bloodshed is not over yet.
My point is that this is the landscape where transfiguration happens. Christ reveals his glory not in the imagined oasis of ‘sabbath rest by Galilee, the calm of hills above’ but where lands have been and still are bitterly contested, where blood goes on being shed, where human beings exact cruelty and pain on one another. You could say they are lands of crucifixion. St Matthew frames his transfiguration story with predictions of how Jesus will be made to suffer. At Banyas under Mount Hermon, Caesarea Philippi, where he has been recognised and proclaimed, Jesus begins to ‘show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised’. Afterwards when they are back in Galilee, he says that ‘the Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised’. Even on the mountain’s flank, he speaks about how ‘they did to Elijah whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is to suffer at their hands’.
In the first three gospels, Hermon is the turning point in Jesus’ career. When Jesus descends from these snowy heights of the north, it will be to return south again, back down into his homeland of Galilee, and beyond that, to Jerusalem itself. The holy city is where he will face his crisis, and he needs to prepare his followers for what ‘must’ come to pass – the texts underline that little word ‘must’ because it is not only his choice but his destiny. So already, on the mountain of glory, the passion is in view. Hermon is a long way from Judea, yet distance is collapsed in the geography of the spirit. It’s to say that we must not be misled as to the meaning of transfiguration. Yes, it is to be overwhelmed by the vision of divine splendour and the prospect that all of life, the whole of creation, and ourselves with it will one day be transformed from one degree of glory to another. The new heaven and the new earth are palpable on that summit, as they are whenever we find ourselves on some summit shared or alone, some peak experience as we say, when the air is suddenly thin and the colours glow and the ordinary falls away and we feel we know ‘the hills where our life rose and the sea where it goes’.
But the gospel writers would not want us to slip into that way of speaking too easily. They would urge us not to dislocate the story from its context. They would say: remember where Hermon is, remember that these dangerous lands have long known conflict and suffering. And remember how before his transfiguration and in its glowing aftermath, Jesus felt the icy shadow of pain and death fall across his heart. Remember that the cross is his true glory, his self-giving love for the human family for which he was content to be betrayed, and given into the hands of wicked men, and to suffer death at Golgotha. This is why all the gospels speak of the cross as transfigured glory, the deep and dazzling darkness in which, as we gaze at it with awe and faith, we see the light of everlasting love.
We stand on the threshold of Lent, about to embark on the journey towards Easter. To be on Hermon is like the Hebrews on Mount Pisgah, looking out across to the promised land. For us today, that promised land is Easter. We have a journey to make to get there. It may be rough and steep, but it will be filled with its own beauty and reward: the desert is a place of wild beasts and angels, says St Mark where life is stripped thin and bare so that we can glimpse glory. I am saying that it is time to turn from the mountain to the plain and learn once again whatever God has to teach us in that desert’s tough but cleansing place. It is time to turn towards Jerusalem where faith will be tested in the time of trial, and where we shall walk the via dolorosa with Jesus and with suffering humanity and pray that he will take into himself the pain of the world. Time too to turn towards the resurrection we celebrate on this first day of the week, the risen glory that the transfiguration foreshadows. Time to pray the ancient prayer that God may show us his glory and beckon us to embrace it, time to reawaken our hope that one day all creation will find what it has longed for since time began, where there will be no more darkness or dazzling but one equal light.

Durham Cathedral, 2 March 2014
Matthew 17. 1-13

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