We beheld His Glory
In the passage we are about to pray with, (Matthew 17:1–8), Peter James and John are witness to Jesus’ Transfiguration, and the further showing forth of God’s presence under the appearance of ‘a bright cloud’ that ‘cast its shadow over them’ This story of the Transfiguration has resonances with the Jewish concept of the ‘Shekinah’, the presence of God made manifest to His people.
The Shekinah is the English transliteration of a Hebrew word meaning "dwelling" or "settling"(Biblical Hebrew: שכינה šekīnah.) referring to the dwelling or settling of the presence of God. This presence of God as a visible experience occurs in various places in the Old Testament, experienced as a glorious and terrifying shining out.
Near the beginning of the Covenantal relationship between God and His people Abraham (then still called Abram) made sacrifice to God and God appeared to him as a smoking fire … and a flaming torch’ (Gen 15.17).
Famously, Moses encounters God first in the burning bush. God leads His people out of Egypt wth a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, but also importantly later on when at Sinai the cloud of God’s glory overshadowed the mountain when Moses received the Ten Commandments: 'When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from within the cloud. To the Israelites the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain’ (Ex.24.15-18)
This ‘glory of the Lord appearing in the cloud’ also happens when the manna is given to feed the people in the desert (Ex 16.10-12), and when Moses has built the tabernacle and tent of meeting ‘Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle’.(Ex. 40.34)
At the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem when the priests place the Ark of the Covenant within the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of the temple, and ‘When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord.’ So that they could not ‘perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple.’(I Kings 8.10-11)
In the C6th BC the prophet Ezekiel received a vision of the cloud of glory leaving the Temple in Jerusalem because of the people’s wickedness, after which the visible manifestation of God’s glory in His Temple ceased. However, a return of the cloud of glory is envisioned in the prophets as part of the Messianic era, with the coming of Christ.
In the New Testament, Jesus is the manifestation of the Glory of God. The Transfiguration, along with the Baptism and a passage in John(John 12.28) where the voice of the Father is heard speaking to Jesus from heaven, there is a Trinitarian pattern – at the Baptism the voice of the Father sends the Dove form of the Holy Spirit; here the Voice and the bright cloud with Jesus show a Trinity of Persons.
What does this mean for us? As Christians we believe that the point of Christ’s Incarnation, His becoming human, is so that we can become alive with His life. We contemplate Him in the Eucharist, ‘with unveiled faces we contemplate the Lord’s glory’ and thus according to St Paul ‘are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18) St Irenaeus, writing a generation or so later, says that ‘Gloria Dei est vivens homo’ – The glory of God is living man/humanity.’ He adds, ‘the life of man consists in beholding God.’(Adversus Haereses IV.20.7) What the Transfiguration is about, partly, is revealing the glory that belongs to Christ, which through Him belongs to us: ‘God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”(Revelation 21: 3)