Readings: Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 9:28b-36
This year we read Luke's account of the Transfiguration. There are a number of things found only in his account: the reference to the 'exodus' which Jesus was to accomplish at Jerusalem is the one most often mentioned. But there is also a reference to the sleep, or better the 'half sleep', of the disciples: only Luke tells us about this. What is the meaning of this half-sleep of the disciples?
The liturgy provides an interpretation for us by linking the Transfiguration with the story of God sealing the covenant with Abram. It is a strange story about God consuming divided animals while Abram has fallen into a trance. Is it a dream? Is it happening in another dimension? It is the sleep of revelation, the sleep of divine encounter, which we hear about not only in relation to Abram but also to Jacob, his son Joseph, the priest Eli, the prophets Elijah and Daniel, Mary's husband Joseph, and others.
The sleep of the disciples at the Transfiguration belongs in this biblical line: in this trance something is being revealed, God is being encountered. The term used refers to a half-sleep, like twilight, but more precisely it refers to the kind of light there is as the dawn approaches. As they woke up, it says, in the dim but pregnant light of dawn. The disciples are being brought from living under one light to living under a different light. They have dozed through the revelation, through the conversation between Moses, Elijah and Jesus, but will very slowly come to understand more about it.
It seems that disciples tend to be sluggish. The spirit of sleep comes easily on them, dulling their eyes and their ears (Deuteronomy 29:4; Isaiah 29:10; Romans 11:8; Matthew 13:15; Mark 13:36). The most notorious moment is their sleep in the Garden of Gethesemane: 'could you not stay awake, watch one hour with me?' So often Jesus calls his disciples simply to wake up, 'rise and pray', 'watch', 'be alert', 'stand ready'. The virgins awaiting the bridegroom must stay awake because they do not know at what hour he will come. But Israel's watchmen sleep (Isaiah 56:10). Luke tells us that in Gethsemane the disciples slept because of their grief. But at the Transfiguration he gives no reason for their sluggishness.
So there is a sleep that is the occasion of revelation and encounter, and there is a sleep that means sluggishness and inattention. And there is also the sleep of death. The daughter of Jairus is dead, say the people. She is asleep, says Jesus, and they laugh. Lazarus sleeps until Jesus calls him back to life. Jesus too slept and woke, as Jonah did, in a storm-tossed boat. 'The night is far gone, the day is at hand. It is time to wake from sleep because salvation is nearer now than when we first believed' (Romans 13:11-12). In the New Testament sleeping and waking are about dying and rising, they are about being saved and being brought into glory. 'Awake O sleeper and rise from the dead and Christ will give you light' (Ephesians 5:14).
Today's second reading, from Philippians, speaks of the disciples as candidates for transfiguration. They are to prepare themselves for a new, wide-awake, life. The same power with which Christ subdues the whole universe - his power as the Creator - will transform our lowly bodies into copies of his glorious body. God acts again in Jesus to bring the disciples from sleep to wakefulness. He leads them from the kingdom of darkness into the new light that is already shining.
God does not sleep. There are some beautiful passages in the scriptures that assure us of this. Mendelssohn set one of them to glorious music, Psalm 121 which tells us that the One who watches over Israel 'slumbers not nor sleepest'. The night of the exodus from Egypt was a night of watching by the Lord (Exodus 12:42). The Transfiguration teaches us that the night of Jesus' passion and death will also be a night of watching by the Lord, the God of Israel. 'Awake, do not cast us off forever', we cry out in Psalm 44, 'rise up, redeem us because of your love'.
The half-sleep of the disciples alerts us, awakens us, to a rich strand of thought that weaves its way through the Scriptures. Adam, the first man, sleeps, and God creates Eve from him. God pours gifts on His beloved while they slumber. On the cross Jesus gives up his spirit, sinking into the sleep of death, but His heart is awake (Song of Songs 5:2) for His love is stronger than death. The Church is born from His side as he sleeps, and when he awakes, raised from the dead, he has become the first fruits of all who have fallen asleep, all whom the Father has entrusted to Him.
An ancient Christian inscription, using the same Greek term as Luke uses here for the disciples' awakening, speaks of Christ as 'the awakening light'. He is the Light of the world, fully awake in Himself, but also the Light that awakens all others to new life, new understanding, a new love.