Given what’s going on in Ukraine at the moment, it’s quite a luxury for us to be able to gather here in comfort and safety. What must it be like to have no heat to keep you warm in the freezing weather there, no power to cook a meal and feed your children, no water to wash or flush a toilet or even to have your home destroyed?  And how horrifying it must be for these innocent people, the vast majority of whom are Christian, that the leadership of the Russian Christian Orthodox Church has fed the ego of Vladimir Putin and endorses his pummelling them to death.

Against this horrible background, what might God be saying to us in the Gospel we have just heard (Luke 9:28-36)?

The Bible in Jesus’ time – and still in Judaism to this day – comprises the books of Moses (the first five in the Bible) and the teaching of the Prophets, chief amongst whom is the Prophet Elijah. (Their Bible contains nothing of what we call the New Testament of the Gospels or the Letters of Paul, Peter and others.)  And the story we have just heard describes how these two stand-out figures – Moses and Elijah – were ‘appearing in glory’ to Jesus and were ‘talking to him’.

How could this happen? Clearly, they did not come back from the dead. What’s most likely is that this is St Luke’s way of telling us that a profound change was seen to come over Jesus when he was studying and reflecting on the writings of Moses and Elijah. From them he would have been learning more about what God was asking of him, namely, to take the road to Calvary. It is in this sense that Moses and Elijah ‘appeared’ to Jesus and were ‘speaking’ to him about his journey up to Jerusalem.

This experience is known as Jesus’ Transfiguration. We’re told that “the aspect of his face was changed, and his clothing became brilliant as lightening”. This is how those with him witnessed. When first century Jews read this, they would have known straightaway that a similar change occurred with Moses when he encountered God to receive the Law under the cover of cloud on Mount Sinai; and that a similar change happened to the prophet Elijah when he was on a high mountain. The Transfiguration of Jesus took place ‘up a mountain’, mountains being the usual place where great Biblical figures experienced God’s divine presence.

So here Jesus not only learns about his identity and also is presented as the equal of Judaism’s greatest spiritual leaders, Moses and Elijah, and that he has their seal of approval. Towards the end of the first century, when this Gospel was written, this claim about Jesus’ status was important for people who had never met him and who might only know that he had been crucified and appeared to have been a failure.

The event ends with a ‘voice from the cloud’ saying “this is my Son, the Chosen One. Listen to him.” You may recall that a similar ‘voice’ spoke at Jesus’ baptism and on both occasions God wanted people to accept or ‘listen’ to Jesus and not to limit themselves to the traditional Judaism. Jesus was now God’s definitive spokesperson, and they should follow his teaching above all others.

This Transfiguration was part of Jesus’ overall experience of coming to terms with the painful road to suffering and rejection to which God was calling him. He would have to be a suffering and not a political Saviour of God’s people. Suffering and death would be an inescapable part of his life.

The same is true for us. We also cannot avoid suffering: it’s part of being human. But a further painful lesson is being hammered home to us now – evil here in Europe did not end with the Second World War or the Holocaust. It has reared its terrifying head once more, this time in the genocide taking place in Ukraine.

What does Jesus ask of us? None of us can stop the tanks rolling into Kiev or prevent the threatened chemical or nuclear warfare there. However, we can live a good life – or live it well – as Jesus defines it, in a life lived for others. As the authentic voice of God for us, we take our principles and convictions from him. So we respond to the evil in our own midst as Jesus asks – by our care for the sick, support for the weak, lending a hand to the poor, welcome to the refugee, grieving with those who mourn, and showing compassion and mercy to each other. Such a selfless life, modeled on the life of Jesus, is the best response to the evil rampant in Eastern Europe.

Michael Campion
Holy Name, Jesmond
13 March 2022

%d bloggers like this: