In the 1979 movie, A Picnic at Hanging Rock, a group of schoolgirls with their lady teachers all dressed up in dreamy period costumes disappear on a school outing on Valentine’s Day 1900. It’s certainly a powerful movie, finely balanced as the tensions and unspoken understandings between the characters, the hints of impropriety, special friendships and hostilities, the sense of intrusion sharpened by the inappropriateness of pretty crinoline dresses clambering up a granite outcrop in the middle of the Victorian Alps, breathtaking shots of rocky skylines, claustrophobic scenes of clawing through spiky undergrowth and the dizzying emptiness of the Australian bush. The whole thing I guess plays off the ambivalence and barely suppressed fear of the bush felt by early settlers. We get the sense that the mountain itself is protecting some sort of secret, that human experience is vulnerable and unreliable in the face of some great and ancient mystery. Frustratingly, but very skilfully, the movie never answers its own questions, we never do find out what happened.
Human beings have always, it seems, seen mountains as high places not only literally, geographically, but also as places of spiritual connection, inhabited by spirits or local deities. I’m not sure that is so much the spirituality of indigenous Australians, who have more the sense that the whole of the landscape, waterholes and pools, caves as well as hills are connected as a spiritual whole. Maybe the spirituality of hilltops is something we inherit more from the Hebrew roots of our tradition – Mount Moriah where Abraham comes to understand that the God he is bound to in covenant is not a capricious deity who requires the sacrifice of his only son. The story of Moses coming down from Mt Sinai with the tablets of the Torah in his hands, his face shining from his too-close-for-comfort encounter with God. The hill shrines of the Canaanite peoples, the folk-religious practices not only of the Canaanite but also the Hebrew peoples who set up shrines and sacrificed to Yahweh in the high places. Like all of these, the hill-top and the obscuring cloud of today’s story conveys the sense of being on a plane set apart from the experience of everyday, an alternative reality where the divine and human worlds intersect, what the Celtic peoples refer to as ‘thin places’, special places where the dividing line between the human and divine worlds is fuzzy.
Hence the timeless, otherworldly quality of today’s Gospel story which Christians for centuries have argued over. Is it just a literal story of something that happened on the long road to Jerusalem, or is it a mythological insert into the Gospel story that’s trying to convey a sense of how the disciples came to experience who Jesus really was, could it even originally have been a story of the risen, resurrected Jesus appearing to his disciples, a story that somehow got out of the right sequence? Certainly, the story of the Transfiguration has got something about it that reminds me of my own habit when I’m reading a nail-biter and can’t wait to get to the end, my very, very bad habit of flipping to the last page for a sneak preview because I can’t stand the suspense any longer, or because I need to reassure myself it’s worth the effort of reading it all the way through.
I don’t really think the story of the Transfiguration is just a resurrection story that got put in the wrong place. If anything, it’s a story that seems more coloured by the imagery of the expected climax to human history, when the rabbis expected Moses and Elijah to reappear. Certainly the appearance of Jesus with Moses and Elijah is a way of saying there’s nothing new here. Jesus is the fulfilment of the tradition and the long-expected outworking of what the Law has always been about. The shiny Jesus would remind Matthew’s Jewish readers straight away of the shiny-faced Moses. The shininess of Jesus is the brightness of the end of the age, because the end of the age is when what exists in heaven becomes visible. It’s the same sort of metamorphosis that St Paul seems to be talking about in 1 Corinthians, when he says we’ll all be changed in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. So if it’s a glance at the last page, it’s a glance at the very last page, ‘look’, it seems to be saying, ‘if you’re feeling discouraged halfway along the journey just see how different everything looks from the perspective of eternity’. It’s a good reminder for us as we prepare to begin the journey of Lent, that the Jesus who we follow on his journey to Jerusalem and the cross is the one who we already know as risen and glorified.
But for Matthew in particular, who makes a few subtle changes to the story he inherits from Mark, the Transfiguration isn’t just a look forward, in fact it’s a scene that sends us scurrying all the way back to the baptism of Jesus, the voice from the cloud with the exact same words, ‘This is my beloved Son, I am very pleased with him.’ It’s a reminder that Jesus is the one in whom heaven and earth intersect – or to put it in language more familiar to the spirituality of our own age, Jesus is the one in whom the depth dimension of human experience rises to the surface and becomes visible. Jesus’ baptism, for Matthew, is about identity, who Jesus really is, but it’s also about destiny, where Jesus is headed, Jesus’ insistence on doing his Father’s will and his acceptance of the consequences of that decision.
But I think one of the most helpful things to notice about the story of the Transfiguration is that it’s first and foremost a story for disciples, told from the fairly shaky and not fully comprehending perspective of Peter, James and John. Matthew gives the disciples a much better rap here than Mark, who seems never to miss an opportunity to remind us how scared and witless they are. Mark, for example, tells us Peter blurts out his suggestion about putting up a row of tents because he is terrified and talking nonsense. Matthew leaves out the editorial remark, and in fact as my Bible commentary points out there was some sense to Peter’s suggestion, in view of the connection between the Jewish Festival of Booths and the expected coming of God’s kingdom to unite the nations of the world. I guess, though, we can’t pass over the fact that Peter’s response is a fairly typical human reaction – we do want to make our experience solid and reliable, to pin down in bricks and mortar the essentially un-pin-downable experience of God’s presence with us. Still, the way Matthew tells the story, Peter’s somewhat missing-the-point suggestion gets a very profound answer.
The first answer is the voice from the cloud, ‘This is my Son – listen to him’. And when the cloud lifts the disciples see just Jesus. No more Moses, no Elijah, no more disturbing brightness, just the very human, very vulnerable Jesus who, we know very well, has got a long and fearful road ahead of him. The point is this – without heavenly companions, without the unearthly brilliance, Jesus himself is the tabernacle, or as St John’s Gospel puts it, Jesus is God pitching a tent and living among us. The Transfiguration is the revelation of Jesus both in power and in vulnerability, which of course is the only way he can be of any use to us.
And the second answer is in what Jesus does next. The disciples, as you can imagine after having been argued with by a voice from heaven, were feeling just a bit overwhelmed. Matthew tells us they fell to the ground in fear, and fair enough. What Jesus does is to touch them, to help them up, and he says to them, ‘don’t be afraid’. This, I think, is the most profound moment of the whole episode.
Partly why I think A Picnic at Hanging Rock was so powerful was because it showed, very clearly, the fear that underlies our human experience of the vastness and the mystery of the world we live in. We are afraid because we feel alone, because we are not in control. We feel afraid when we touch, just for an instant, the limits of our existence. We are afraid when we think God doesn’t exist, and then we feel afraid when we experience the sudden certainty that God is an ever-present reality of our lives. In the story of the Transfiguration we encounter something profoundly beautiful, human beings being overwhelmed by the mystery and the power of the divine, and then receiving the gift of grace and reassurance. “Stand up. Don’t be afraid’
For me, this story of heaven and earth touching one another on the top of the mountain finds an echo in another story – Jesus, leading them towards a new understanding of their own lives as being about love and service, washes his disciples’ feet. The story of the Transfiguration, in a sense, is the opposite of A Picnic at Hanging Rock – touching the limits of our experience we find there unexpected grace, reassurance and new strength.