The Transfiguration of Jesus and Brocken spectra

One of the most wonderful sights in the mountains is a Brocken spectre. It is a glorified shadow of a person caused by refraction of low-angle sunlight through wispy, foggy cloud. I’ve just killed the beauty and wonder of the Brocken Spectre . Here’s wiki on it It is named after the Brocken , a peak in the Harzgebirge in Germany.

They are most common in British hills in winter, when wispy clouds play with rays from the weak winter sun. I have only seen three. The first two were on January days on Foel Grach and Y Garn in Snowdonia some twenty years ago. I remember the spectre waving his ice axe at me.  That axe came from Chamonix.

My next was just after Christmas 2016. It was a perfect late December day  and so I drove to the Temperance Inn  beyond Sedbergh and set off to climb the Howgill Fells. I walked up a glacial valley to the foot of Cautley Spout and had a stiff climb to the top, watching out for ice.


At the top of the falls I left the path , jumped a stream and headed up this hill. The views were great.


As I got near the top I was met with a little snow and wispy cloud. It was time for a photostop. I look back northwards over my route, where I contemplated that I could be spending the rest of my life descending a steep slope.  I turned round savouring the view to the north east and Great Baugh Fell, and…………


Wow and wow!! It was a Brocken spectre whichj gave me a much justified halo.


I clicked away…


and the spectre faded and went, almost as quickly as it had come.


and so to the top, which was almost an anticlimax.


and so to the descent finding that old knees and ice don’t mix.


It was a fantastic day.

As I reflected on the Brocken Spectre I thought about my tentative relocation of the Mount of Transfiguration. Decades ago I took a propaganda tour from Lake Gallilee to the Golan Heights and then back via the slopes of Mt Hermon and Caesarea Phillipi. South of Caesarea Phillipi we drove past the Mount of Transfiguration, which would be considered a molehill in East Anglia. A year or two back I wondered if the “high mountain” Jesus took Peter and James and James up was not the mole hill of Mt Tabor but could rather Mt Hermon. After all that IS a high mountain and was snow-covered when I was there in April. And so I thought of what the gospel writers (Matthew 17 vs1-9) wrote;

1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.
2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.
3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.
7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Yes, it was a high mountain and what happened. Like so many passages in the Bible which speak of a divine encounter it is difficult to work out what happened. The two opposite errors are either to be overly -literalist or spiritualise it. I have long found the whole section of the confession of St Peter at Caesarea Phillip and the Transfiguration as one of the most important passages on Jesus Christ. It brings out the nature of Jesus as Messiah, the waywardness of followers summed up in the rebuke to Peter , “Get behind me, Satan” (Something we all need to hear), the cost of discipleship and carrying our cross and then the Transfiguration , which seems to be a foretaste of the Resurrection.
The first part is very much every day and down to earth, but the Transfiguration is something more. I find the meaning very profound and moving and it strengthens my faith, but the Thomas in me asks what happened. I cannot answer that question, beyond saying something very profound and moving happened. (I will never make a good fundamentalist!)
I wonder, and I say this tentatively, was the Transfiguration in part the disciples and Jesus seeing Brocken spectra on Mt Hermon.
Now to some I will be seen as fanciful and to others as explaining away a central part of the Gospel – the Transfiguration.
Whatever happened, and something did, I wonder if a Brocken Spectre helps us to understand, tacitly if not intellectually, the wonder of the Transfiguration.
At best, in this life we only have passing glimpses of the Resurrection, which are as transient as a Brocken Spectre, but still wonderful.
I may not see another Brocken Spectre but I will see……………………………
Painting by Carl Bloch

1 thought on “The Transfiguration of Jesus and Brocken spectra

  1. wkdawson

    I kind of like that one. That rainbow pattern has happened to me a couple of times, though not on a high mountain. It is stunning. I had not really connected such rare combinations of conditions in any partial sense with the transfiguration, but that could be part of it. … and the Carl Bloch painting you selected kind of makes it a little more persuasive. Like you, I don’t want to be either “overly-literalist” or merely “spiritualise” everything away.

    I’m with you that it can be some of this confluence of natural events in creating the halo, yet still perhaps something more than even that.

    I come to see the journey with Jesus as a matter of trust. We have to trust that there is meaning, that there is purpose in living. All the miracles in the world will not build that trust. We’ll just want to see bigger miracles. We are not really any different than the Israelites who constantly complained to Moses about every little thing, even though they were let go from Egypt, something happened at the Red Sea, and many other things. When I go through trials, it always seems like my current trial is so far out of reason with what I think God should do than all the past occasions where God has carried me through the trials.

    We will struggle with doubt till the day we die, but the important thing is not that we blindly believe the big black book but that we trust God through all of these things to the end. If our final lament is “a tale told by an idiot, with sound and fury signifying nothing”, then whatever miracles have happened in our life did nothing. Does life have a purpose or not? McBeth concluded that it didn’t. The universe popped into existence and right is defined by who has the biggest club. Grab what you can and find whatever enjoyment you can. That is the logical conclusion of that (even the good deeds you might do).

    Following Jesus is a conclusion that says that somehow, even if we cannot explain it logically, it really does matter. … it says that we trust that there is a right way, and we want to go that way, we want to follow the light. Even if I am wrong, and that cynical and nihilistic picture really is the truth, I will have at least made the world a little better for the people here while I walk on this earth.

    I don’t think I have said that to you before, so before I forget again, … thank you for your service as a pastor and for trying your best as a fellow human being to convey the way of the light.



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