The German economist and Communist political philosopher Karl Marx said that “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world, and the soul of the soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” This is often summarised by the sentence…“Religion is the opium of the masses.” Marx believed that religion had certain practical functions in society that were similar to the function of opium in a sick or injured person: it reduced people’s immediate suffering and provided them with pleasant illusions which gave them the strength to carry on. Marx also saw religion as harmful to his revolutionary goals, as it prevents people from seeing the class structure and oppression around them, thus in his view religion could prevent the socialist revolution. It is not exactly an endorsement for religion and faith. Some people seem willing to wait for Christianity to die when it is no longer needed; but others were, and are, keener to kill the illusion before (in their view) it does greater damage.
With the relatively recent rise of new atheism, claims that Christianity is untrue have certainly been heard by a very wide audience. We are living with a generation in society that has not been brought up within the culture and teaching of the church, and which has a deep mistrust of authority and institutions. The scepticism with which the church is viewed is not limited though to the church alone. People don’t trust anything, not families, not employers, not governments.
I guess my response to these views is one tinged with sadness. Sadness because, none of the people who express such views seem to have had a personal encounter with our Lord, Saviour and Redeemer Jesus Christ. None of them seem to have a heart and head knowledge of that personal relationship with Christ. None of them seem to recognise or acknowledge lives transformed by the love and grace of God. None of them seem to see the reality of this in people’s lives.
In our first reading, we are told that the “gospel is veiled, to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
I am sure you know people who profess no belief in God; people who disbelieve. This may include family, friends or neighbours. If you ever have a conversation with them about faith, and they talk about their disbelief I invite you to try something. Ask them if they are prepared to try and pull back the veil and see if they have an encounter with Christ. Invite them to a service, invite them to come and see for themselves, invite them to consider the impact that your faith has had and is having on your life. After all, they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
When we look at our Gospel reading for today, the disciples Peter, James and John were eyewitnesses of the transfiguration of Christ. The Greek word translated as transfigured is one we might be more familiar with – metamorphosis. We’re all familiar with a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. There are many views about the transfiguration, but in my view the more plausible ones are that:
- The transfiguration is a prophetic view of both the future glory and the true nature of Jesus’ Messiahship
- The transfiguration is a sign of the royal presence, for the kingdom of God is in the midst of his people. Here Jesus’ glory is revealed not just through his deeds, but in a more personal way.
This alone would have been in incredible sight and experience for those 3 disciples. But then we are told that Moses and Elijah appeared before them too. We must recognise that Mark is not prone to hyperbole in his gospel narrative. It is as if he is simply reporting facts or making a factual statement – Elijah and Moses appeared before them – not two people LIKE Moses and Elijah appeared before them. There must have been something about these two people that made them instantly recognisable.
Let’s be clear; people in that society and culture were not known to be superstitious – in fact they were pragmatic and somewhat sceptical. That is one of the many reasons why people were so astonished by the miracles of Jesus and subsequently the miracles of the apostles themselves. We must understand that context and if this were evidence we were considering in a court of law this context and the fact that these 3 disciples were eyewitnesses would “hold water”.
As a nation and as a community the Jewish people had seen prophets come and ago over centuries. They had had chance to learn of prophecies fulfilled, see prophecies being fulfilled and to hold hope that prophecies would be fulfilled. Many authors concur that the significance of Moses and Elijah appearing with Jesus is that they represented the Law and the Prophets respectively. It is also important to bear in mind that both Moses and Elijah “had unusual departures from this world, and were both expected to reappear at the end of time.” Their appearance with Jesus was a significant moment of proclamation that Jesus’ life and ministry was about to come into sharp focus and climax leading to his crucifixion and resurrection.
The disciples saw Jesus in the fullness of his glory, leaving no room for doubt or disbelief. Sometimes we need to have an encounter with the glory of God for the veil to be pulled back. Sometimes we need to capture a glimpse of his glory to be able to face or duties and trials. My prayer is that as we journey together, people might see something of the light of Christ shining within us, that they might see lives transformed, and God at work in us as a Church and in our community.
In all of this, we are drawn into the event. We are invited to make this journey with the disciples. We too are invited to be eyewitnesses, to come and see. We are invited to share our faith: people who follow God (like Moses), people who witness about God’s message (like Elijah), and people just like us, transformed by this amazing power, gladdened by this light. Not an empty, illusory faith but a tenacious, grounded, real, transformational faith. As we journey through Lent, it’s a good idea to be mindful of the transfiguration. In the passion of Christ as we come to the cross it is good to know that it doesn’t end there.
whose Son was revealed in majesty
before he suffered death upon the cross:
give us grace to perceive his glory,
that we may be strengthened to suffer with him
and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
 Lucas, R. C., & Green, C. (1995). The message of 2 Peter & Jude: the promise of His coming (p. 73). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.