This Sunday as the last Sunday before Lent. Each year on this Sunday we hear the story of the transfiguration of Jesus, this year hearing the version from Saint Mark. Here’s what I said.
What do you see when you look at the clouds?
Like many, I love the Peanuts cartoon strips – and possibly my all-time favourite dates back to 1960. Charlie Brown and his friends Linus and Lucy are lying on a grassy mound looking up at the sky.
Lucy says: Aren’t the clouds beautiful? They look like big balls of cotton wool. I could just lie here all day, and watch them drift by. If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the cloud formations. What do you see Linus?
And Linus, being particularly imaginative, says: Well, those clouds up there look to me like the map of British Honduras on the Caribbean. That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor. And that group of clouds over there gives me the impression of the stoning of Stephen … I can see the apostle Paul standing there to one side.
Lucy replies: That’s very good … What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?
And poor Charlie Brown, having heard Linus’s response replies: Well, I was going to say a ducky and a horsy, but I changed my mind.
You can see the original strip by clicking here.
What do you see in the clouds? Are you like Linus? And see lots of stuff clearly? Or like Charlie Brown? And struggle to see anything meaningful at all? What do you see in the clouds?
In our gospel reading today from Mark we hear how Jesus takes his closest friends – Peter and James and John – up a mountain. And after witnessing a remarkable transformation in the appearance of Jesus, what we call the transfiguration, the three friends find themselves enveloped in a cloud. What, I wonder, did they feel at that moment when the cloud surrounds them? What could they see in the cloud? Or was the cloud so thick that they could see nothing? Well – it seens to be the latter, given the way Mark and the other gospel writers describe it.
Well, Mark doesn’t tell us is what their immediate reaction to the cloud was. What he does tell us is that immediately before it overshadows them they were terrified – so I think we can assume that their terror only gets worse. But then, from the cloud, comes a voice: This is my Son, the Beloved – listen to him.
And then, the cloud is gone – they are just standing there with Jesus. And then Jesus takes them down the mountain.
What do you see in the clouds? That seems to me to be a rather pertinent question at the moment: what do you see in the clouds? Because for all of us the last year has been a time of clouds. No matter whether the sun is actually shining or not, our lives have been overshadowed. And rather like the three disciples, standing there on the mountain with Jesus, we have found ourselves unable to see very far ahead.
As it happens I have a very vivid memory of being at the top of a mountain and overshadowed by cloud. When our children were young we had regular holidays in North Wales. And one year, it being a clear and bright day, we decided it was an ideal day to go and have a ride on the Snowdon Mountain Railway, and see the view from the summit of Mount Snowdon.
So off we went – and we bought our tickets, and got on the rather rickety rack and pinion railway that goes to the top of the mountain. And off we set – only to find ourselves, within a few minutes of setting off, suddenly and without warning enveloped by a thick, dark cloud – almost pitch black. It became freezing cold, the rain pelted on the windows. And that’s how it was all the way to the top.
At the top there is a visitor centre, just a short walk – just a few steps really – from the summit. We discovered at the centre a party of teenage school-children who had walked up. They had set off on the walking route up the mountain in fine weather, only – like us – to find themselves enveloped in the freezing, soaking, cloud as they climbed. And too high up to turn back, they had made it to the visitor centre where they were being cared for by the staff who supplied blankets and hot drinks to help them recover before they could be rescued.
Our children flatly refused to do the short walk to the summit, but the two of us, determined to do it, struggled to the top. And along with other such foolhardy people we stood in the freezing rain and peered out into the blackness. You could see not a thing – just blackness, a few yards in front of you.
We didn’t hang around. We got the next available train down the mountain. And to our amazement, as we headed toward the bottom, we emerged from the cloud just as suddenly as we had entered it. Back out into a bright and clear day. And when we got off the train at the bottom, and looked back up at the mountain, there was no sign of the appalling conditions at the top.
That’s an experience that I’ve often thought about when each year on this Sunday before Lent we have the story of Jesus taking his three friends up the mountain. But it has also seemed somewhat relevant to the times we currently find ourselves in. Sunshine beforehand, sunshine again after, but at the moment it feels a bit like that experience of being at the top of Mount Snowdon, enveloped by thick black cloud, unable to see very far ahead in the dark and dismal conditions. I know at some point the sunshine will return, but right now it seems sometimes to be still a long way off.
And I guess that’s a current experience for many. Which brings me back to my question: what do you see in the clouds? Can you, like Linus in our Peanuts cartoon, see everything clearly? Or, like Charlie Brown, does everything look rather unclear and a bit muddled?
Let’s go back to our gospel reading, and to Jesus and his three friends, Peter and James and John. As we heard, Mark tells us how the three disciples who are with Jesus have an amazing experience of seeing Jesus transfigured in front of them. And then the cloud overshadows them.
What did they see in the cloud? Well, as far as we know absolutely nothing. Not even each other – that’s the nature of being enveloped by a cloud on a mountain as I discovered on Mount Snowdon. They apparently couldn’t even see Jesus himself! But they did hear something. They heard a voice, the voice of God, saying: This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!
And then the cloud vanishes, and they can see each other and Jesus. And Mark finishes the story by telling us that the three shared their experience with others after Jesus had risen from the dead. In time, the glory of the transfiguration which they had experienced before the cloud surrounded them, was replaced with the glory of the risen Jesus amongst them following the darkness of the cross.
As I looked at this passage from Mark during the week, it struck me quite forcibly that just as God the Father spoke those words to Peter and James and John from the darkness of the cloud: This is my Son … listen to him; so now he is speaking those words to us, as we find ourselves enveloped by the cloud of the pandemic. And that I believe is God’s message to us today through this scripture – it’s dark at the moment, but rest assured that my Son is with you – all you need to do is learn to listen to him.
What do you see in the clouds? It may well be that at the moment, like Peter and James and John, it seems impossible to see anything – it all just feels too dark as we struggle with the realities of fear of infection, inability to see and hug our loved ones, the sheer stress and boredom of being locked away for weeks and months on end, the fears of not being able to work and worrying about what the future may bring, or even the fears of going to work.
But just as the three disciples had their fears calmed by hearing God’s voice reminding them that Jesus was there with them in the darkness of the cloud, so too can we have our fears calmed by God as he says to us today – don’t fear, this is my Son who is with you – listen to him. And when the sunshine finally comes again, we will see Jesus, and understand that he has been with us all along.