Sunday before Lent - 14 Feb 2010
Exod 34.29-35; 2 Cor 3.12-4.2; Luke 9.26-36
"Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable.
One glory of the everlasting world ..."
We come to this Sunday before Lent with two powerful narratives turning around in our minds. During the weeks since Epiphany, the daily Eucharistic lectionary has been working through the history of the kings of Israel and Judah: such a perplexing tale - at one moment full of promise and the next squalid and fallible. It is not only the person of the king who becomes increasingly diminished in our sight. There are consequences for the people too: the original kingdom of twelve tribes is broken up, as failure leads to fragmentation. The grand vision that seemed to be there in the Davidic kingdom is reduced to scattered fragments. Meanwhile, the daily Gospel has told another, quite different story. Here we have engaged with the unfolding of Jesus’ ministry as Mark tells it: we have heard of healing and feeding, of forgiveness and mercy. Characteristic of the Gospel, the emphasis has been, for the most part, deeply intimate and personal - such episodes as the encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman, or the healing of the deaf, or the overcoming of demons.
Then today; today we are transported to the mount of Transfiguration. How are we to hear this Gospel and most particularly how are we to hear it in response to the starkly contrasted readings of the daily Eucharist?
Such a question can make the quotation from Edwin Muir’s famous poem "Transfiguration" with which I began still more poignant: "Was it a vision? Or did we see that day the unseeable one glory of the everlasting world ... ?" Yes, there is no doubting the power of those Gospel encounters that we have been hearing in these past weeks but where are they now? What use are they if they always seem to occur for someone else? Equally, there is no doubting the human accuracy of the narrative of the books of the Kings: examples abound in our own generation - as Chris Patten said in a magnificent understatement on the radio yesterday morning "the quality of political leadership in Europe at the moment isn’t Premiership class..." (Chris Patten on ‘Today’ 13/2/2010)
The synoptic Gospels do little to connect the Transfiguration directly with the ministry of Jesus: the links are rather to the Baptism and the Passion and Resurrection (which together arguably make the case for the Common Worship lectionary’s choice of this Sunday rather than the second Sunday in Lent when much of the western church will hear this pericope). Perhaps there are some extra hints in Luke - in the precise ways in which his version differs from Matthew and Mark. Only Luke gives us the content of the conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah; only Luke speaks of the glory - and that so obliquely that he leaves us more work to do. Having described the changes in Jesus - both his face and his clothing - he then tells us that Moses and Elijah appeared "in glory". Then - and there is uncertainty here in the reading of the text, for Peter and his companions either fell asleep and woke to see "his glory" or, despite being very tired, managed to stay awake and so saw "his glory" - but whichever, they do certainly see!
A temptation is then to speak of this as a shaft of light in the Gospel narrative, a moment of revelation and consolation for those who must then face the journey up to Jerusalem and witness the arrest, the trial and the crucifixion but to leave it at that. Even though it is the revelation of what is to be, the danger is that it remains remote. It is after all, Jesus who is transfigured, not the disciples. Moses and Elijah get caught up in the overflow, as it were, but that’s because they were talking to him at the time...
It is time then for us to go back to the beginning of Muir’s poem:
So from the ground we felt that virtue branch
Through all our veins till we were whole, our wrists
As fresh and pure as water from a well,
Our hands made new to handle holy things,
The source of all our seeing rinsed and cleansed
Till earth and light and water entering there
Gave back to us the clear unfallen world.
The poet, surely, taps into the heart of this mystery: the heart of the Transfiguration is the revelation of what human being, human life truly is. It is not we, human beings, who know what that is; it is not something we possess in our nature. Of course human being describes our nature but, as St Paul so graphically puts it, we were not destined to be mere nature: "this perishable body must put on imperishability and this mortal body must put on immortality" (I Cor 15.53). Here, on the mount of Transfiguration, we see suddenly, blindingly, fleetingly, what the promise means for us, for each one of us. In Muir’s phrase, ‘the unseeable one glory’ - the glory of Godself - the unseeable one glory of the everlasting world perpetually at work but never seen since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere and nowhere...’ This is the dazzling mystery which leaves Peter stuttering about putting up tents, not knowing what he was saying. The electrifying bit is this sudden revelation of connection: the glory that is God’s, the glory that is Jesus, who is one with the Father, that same glory may, by the Father’s gift and grace, be ours too. In the second letter to the Church at Corinth, St Paul expresses himself beautifully but in a rather more measured 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)
As we step away and the harsh realities of today’s world press in again, the duplicitous politicians, the cruelty of war, the exploitation of the weak by the powerful, we can easily ask with the poet, ‘Was the change in us alone, the enormous earth still left forlorn, an exile or a prisoner?’ So we seek the faith to live hopefully in the parallel worlds which are joined in Jesus - this finite world and the infinite kingdom of peace and love. We shall often be tempted to despair or cynicism but the signs of the kingdom, the signs of that transfiguring glory are there too. The poet captures one dimension of our hope: ‘those who hide within the labyrinth of their own loneliness and greatness came and those entangled in their own devices, the silent and the garrulous liars, all stepped out of their dungeons and were free.’ A second is known when we let God’s grace take hold of us and turn us to the light. A third is when we meet together in the presence of the transfigured man who is our God and who feeds us with the bread of life.
Peter Allan CR