The Transfiguration

Some thoughts on Luke 9.28-36

I wonder if you’ve ever had a moment of absolute awe and wonder? A moment when time had no meaning, when it seemed as if the universe was in technicolour, and you were swept up by it, even overwhelmed?

Wedding couples often tell me that their marriage service felt like this – they expected it to feel special, but it surpassed their ability to imagine.  For that glorious day, and especially for that glorious 35 minutes or so, they are transported out of their normal existence and are part of something that is far bigger and more magnificent than any of us.

If you’ve been blessed by such a moment, you may well have wanted to hold onto it, to make it last for ever. But such moments tend to be glimpses, slipping through our grasp, or dissolving like mist. Those who experience many such moments may find that they are hugely important to them, crucial in their spirituality and faith. Others may never experience such a moment, and may be acutely aware of missing out on something very special.

Jesus’ disciples saw a lot of things during their time with him, many of them strange, many of them challenging, some of them downright incredible. I wonder how significant it was that when it came to his transfiguration he took only his closest friends with him?  This wasn’t just a revelation kept to the disciples rather than the larger crowds who followed Jesus around; it was kept even from the rest of the Twelve.  I wonder if they knew that they had missed something significant?  And, what was it, precisely, that they had missed?  What was it, that Peter, James and John, and actually witnessed?

My experience of reading the gospels and then preaching on them has been that everything that’s included is there for a reason – each verse, each little story, each saying, each event that’s narrated, tells us something about Christ. My confirmation candidate and I tested this theory the other day, by reading just one chapter of Mark and writing down everything about Jesus that we discovered in the chapter.

Mark 1 wordle

We used single words, and used them to create a wordle – this is a wordle that represents Mark chapter 1.

If we had read Luke 9 and done the same thing, I wonder if the worldle would have looked very different?  It’s a chapter which is rich in stories, sayings, happenings, miracles, arguments, and more; reading it, we learn a great deal about Jesus, just as the crowds and the disciples and his most trusted friends must have done. It’s a chapter in which more of Jesus’ identity is revealed, layer by layer. So what is it that we learn about Christ in this most mysterious of happenings?  

It’s as if for one moment the veil comes off, and we see Christ in all his glory, timeless, awe-inspiring. In short, God. That’s what Peter, James and John see.  And they want it to last. They’ve been granted a glimpse of heaven, and they want it. As ever, Peter is the one to put his foot in it, talking about making dwellings for the three figures, but he’s only saying what they’re all thinking: if only we could keep this moment, if only we could stay here, in this little patch of heaven, for ever.

And you can see why.  I remember reading C S Lewis’s The Great Divorce when I was a teenager, and falling in love with his vision of heaven, and then crying my eyes out when the central character discovers that his time in heaven had been all a dream and that he has to return to a world that is not only terribly earthly, but also frightening, and dangerous. Peter and the others knew what their world was like, and that it was a very hard place to live and to thrive.  They, along with all God’s people, longed for a time when the Messiah would come and save them – for some this was a very practical desire for God to defeat their current oppressors, the Romans, but for others it was a much more eschatalogical hope, that God would finally bring about his heavenly order in the wayward world and that there would be a real and lasting peace with the people of God at the beloved centre of it all.

Can you blame Peter, James and John for wanting that moment to be right then? And for them to have been just the first stage of the salvation of Israel? And then finding out that the whole thing was only a glimpse?

That walk down the mountain must have been a long one. No wonder they were able to avoid talking about their experience with anyone.  It may well have been a long time before their disappointment gave way to courage and hope again, and they could recapture the joy and awe of the vision – by the time the story was told and the gospel was written down, they’d had time to interpret what they’d experienced, but at the time…?

So why give them this glimpse? Why show a tantalising snapshot of heaven and then not let them stay?  There are probably a million answers to this question, but mine I think has to be this:

Heaven is eternal, beyond time and space.  But there are aspects of the character of heaven that can be nurtured on earth.  Jesus talks a lot about the Kingdom of God, about how it is already near, but that our own behaviour, our own choices, bring us, and the world around us, closer to heaven, or drive us further from it.

Perhaps the transfiguration is a reminder of the truth of how near heaven is, that it might break through any moment. But perhaps it is also a reminder that our experiences of ecstasy, if we have them, are there not only for our own edification and spiritual growth, but for the transformation of ourselves, inside and out, so that we can be part of what transforms the world.  I have no doubt that Peter, James and John, were transformed by their experience on the mountain.  But their calling wasn’t merely to be transformed, it was to let their own transformation become something that guided their words and actions, making them part of how God was bringing earth and heaven closer together.

I’m not even going to ask whether coming to Holy Communion constitutes a powerful spiritual experience. Perhaps sometimes it does, and other times it doesn’t. Perhaps it’s to do with whether the sunshine has broken through the clouds by 8.30 to illuminate the chancel, perhaps it’s to do with us arriving with just the right openness of mind and heart, perhaps it’s to do with the quality of the poetry in the epistle, or the quality of the silence just before the Lord’s Prayer  – these are all things that can lift the ordinary into something special that can start to transform our mundane souls.

Whether we feel it emotionally and spiritually or not, in a service of Holy Communion we come into contact with something profound, and we receive the grace of God, so we shouldn’t leave church as exactly the same people we were as we came in.  And we should be able to take a little of that heaven with us when we go.  What will we do with it? With whom will we share it?  Not by talking about what it felt like taking communion (remember Jesus told his friends not to talk about what they’d seen) but by letting our closeness with heaven rub off in our dealings with others, and with ourselves.  And that’s something that could change our little bit of the world and beyond.

The truth shall set you free

In ministry and in my personal life I’m confronted again and again by these gospel words, and every time I find them just as challenging.
Perhaps it’s because on some level of wishful thinking I believe that if only I really did have all the facts I would be able to make all the right choices, and pick my way better through the minefield of small and large decisions (and their consequences)  that face me, as they do us all, each day. Maybe it’s because I so often find myself dealing with people’s expectations that I will know what to do, that I’ll have access to some crucial wisdom or insight. Maybe it’s because I’ve almost started believing that this might be the case?
But most of all think it’s because, while I’ve always told myself and others that I value my doubts, and that uncertainty is ok, even healthy, there is some part of me that wants to know the whole truth about myself. I want to know what my motivations really are, whether my memories of things I’ve done and things that have been done to me or for me are as inaccurate and subjective as I fear they are. I want to be able to be wholly honest about who I am, and what I am. I want to be able to see myself as I really am, so that I can smile at the good and repent of the evil, safe in the knowledge that there’s nothing I have missed.
Can any of us ever really become that self aware? Is it possible to dig deep enough to find a truth that is beyond the scope of our self-deception?
When I was at school, I clearly remember an incident when someone had flushed paper towels down the loo and the whole school was kept in detention after assembly until the guilty pupil would own up. It only took about two minutes for me to convince myself that it had been me, even though I also knew in my mind that I was innocent. But equally there are other times in my life where I have been guilty as hell, and I’ve instead told myself lies about mitigating circumstances and how it wasn’t really as bad as it looked, until I’ve ended up believing my own spin. How hard it is to recover truth once we’ve started the process of lying to ourselves!
Reaching truth is like peeling a many-layered onion, we can peel off each painful tearful layer thinking that we’ve finally got to the centre, only to find another layer and another round of tears. Is there ever a point where it’s right to stop, when to go further would be ‘too much truth’? Or if we find that the layer we have reached is not, in fact, setting us free at all, have we rather not gone deep enough?
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C S Lewis writes of an incident in which a rather unpleasant child is turned into a dragon, and while he desperately wants to scratch off the scaly dragon skin to rediscover his human self, each time he does so there is another layer of scales beneath. He simply cannot scratch deeply enough to reach who he really is. He is finally helped by the lion, Aslan, whose claws are sharper and longer, and who scratches so deeply that when the Dragon skin finally cones off the boy feels small and vulnerable, and the sensation of the fresh water on this skin as the lion throws him in a pool nearby is painful for an instant. But he is himself again. Or is he? For the child who emerges from this ordeal is not the same as the one who turned into the Dragon; he has been reborn, and the child he is now is less the spoiled, objectionable brat that he was before and is closer to being the human being that God created him to be. When Aslan strips off the Dragon skin, he also strips off some of the other layers of the boy that were also not part of who he was created to be. In the search for himself, the boy found Aslan – God- and also found a different self from the one he expected to get back.
For St Augustine, the quest for truth about himself was inextricably bound up with what turned out to be a quest for God, as he related in his autobiographical Confessions. For he discovered that ‘You were within me, but I was outside myself’ – that it was impossible to know the truth about himself without learning to see himself in the context of God. It’s a sort of theocentric anthropology.
I want to see myself as God sees me, but even having got as far as that realisation is not enough to enable me actually to do so. I am left with the only viable option being to pray continually to the only one who can really see me, in all my happy successes and dismal failings, and still love me, and ask him to keep on transforming me, whether I notice or not, and even if I might sometimes object to the pain of the process.
Will I ever in this life know the whole truth about myself? I don’t think so. But God does. And he is working on me. And maybe that will have to do.