Sunday before Lent: 7 February 2016

Exod 34.29-35; 2 Cor 3.12-4.2; Luke 9.26-36

In his opera “Doctor Atomic”, the composer John Adams tackled the complex subjects of the morality of the atom bomb and the life of the American scientist whose genius created the bomb, Dr Robert Oppenheimer. At the end of the first act he gives Oppenheimer a great monologue as the atom bomb is tested, almost as if he is saying to us “Let’s see if he knows what he is unleashing; let’s see if he shows some remorse”. “Batter my heart, three-personed God” sings Oppenheimer, quoting John Donne. The whole opera is full of powerful, contradictory juxtapositions: the Oppenheimer’s maid sings a lullaby to the children about the ‘cloud-flower’ blossoming into a thunderstorm; Kitty Oppenheimer, with a ticking accompaniment like the countdown clock, sings “Am I in your light?” Indeed, it was the Donne poem that led Oppenheimer to call the desert test site “Trinity”.

Why begin here? Obviously, perhaps, because we can no longer hear the account of the Transfiguration detached from the awful coincidence of the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. The coinciding of dates is reinforced by the overlapping of images: the dazzling radiance of the bright splendour of the vision on the mount and the unbearable radiation and ‘brilliant luminescence’ of the bomb: both life-changing moments but of such different kinds. There is a danger that this powerful juxtaposition has the effect of robbing both events of some of their significance. On this Sunday before Lent can we, having begun with this recognition of a connection, now turn and give a different kind of attention to the Gospel narrative as it speaks to us on the very threshold of Lent?

The atomic bomb is, in one sense, a natural event. It is composed of natural materials obeying the laws of physics. The elements have been interfered with - as it were - but for all the ghostly light and heat, the event was utterly natural. The Transfiguration is not. For a brief moment, the natural limitations are pulled away and the full potentiality of human being is seen, not in any random person but in the person of the beloved Son, Jesus the Messiah and, contaminated by the brilliance, as it were, in Moses and Elijah. Here again there is similarity: those who saw Jesus on the mountain had never seen anything like it before, just like those who witnessed the exploding of the bomb. There was puzzlement, confusion, uncertainty, even fear. The revelation provoked unreasonable, inappropriate responses but the source of the confusion, the meaning of the events - these are as unalike as it is possible to be.

The bomb has become a symbol of humanity’s seemingly limitless desire to be in control - even if the only control we can manage is that of utter destruction. Since 1945 we have shocked even ourselves at the sheer terror of our capacity for ruin - the threat of nuclear devastation and now, urgently pressing, the threat of such distortion of the ecological balances that the very survival of life on earth hangs by a thread. The meaning seems totally clear but, for all its clarity, we seem incapable of an appropriate response. We resist the fundamental flaw in our approach and, with a puzzled note in our voice, sing with Jamie Lawson “I wasn’t expecting that!”. Far from being in control, we increasingly experience life as ever more terrifying and lacking hope.

By contrast, the light of the Transfiguration is the inbreaking of reality. This is the ‘truth sent from above’, unmarred by the greed and sin of humanity. This is the image of our future, this is our hope, our glory - and it is intimately one with the glory of the Father, that same glory that had led the people of the covenant into Egypt and out again, through the excitements and disappointments of the kings, back into exile and once again to the promised land until, with the loss of the temple, the assurance of glory in our midst had seemingly been taken away. Yet here, now, is glory, glory as of the only Son, full of grace and truth, the fullness of glory pleased to dwell in Jesus, son of Mary.

As we seek in this Lent to respond to the invitation of the Spirit to learn more deeply the truth about ourselves and about God, so we see that it requires a new orientation. We are not to be conformed to this world: we are not to share the hopelessness and futility that cramps and constrains so much life in the world. Rather, we are to live in the light of the glory of the gospel of Christ. It is right to be a bit puzzled, even afraid, like the disciples, for all of us slip back into the negativity of destruction all too easily. It is not easy both to rejoice at the sight of such glory and to allow ourselves to be irradiated by this heavenly light. However, as we learn again to trust ourselves to the generosity of our God just a little more, so we discover that hope and freedom and joy increase. All the accounts of the Transfiguration stumble in their attempts to convey the realisation that, by God’s gift and grace, we are invited into the glory we see before us, the glory that is God’s. St Paul, in the second letter to the Christians in Corinth puts it in an unusually measured, serious kind of way:  ‘All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord...’ (2 Cor 3.18). The Psalmist has a more dynamic expression: “look upon him and be radiant!” (Ps 34.5). The wonder is that we can’t help but reflect the glory of the one who has touched us.

The fact is that God’s glory is obscured by the many faults and failings of the world. That is why the appearance of the Son of man was uncertain, ambiguous: “Are you the one who is to come, or do we look for another?”. We see the glory but we are not sure. Today, this glorious text reminds us that this is the reality. The world is ‘charged with the grandeur of God’ and ‘all in the temple are crying “Glory”’! This is the confidence we need to set out into the desert to be tested by the Spirit, to strip away all in us that inclines us to the side of being in control and allows us instead to discover what it is to be children of our heavenly Father. This is not the way to achieve effortless promotion; not the way to live a life that avoids difficulty or suffering but it is a way that leads to joy, as the Lord shows us, the Lord ‘who for the joy that lay before him endured the cross’. This is a kind of joy that leads us to sing again, “I wasn’t expecting that!”


Peter Allan CR