Getting ahead of myself a bit – here is a doodle for Sunday’s gospel, the Transfiguration.
I was asked to write a hymn for a church dedicated to the Transfiguration, as there aren’t many hymns written for that particular feast day. Here’s a first draft – as always, it’s not final, and comments, criticisms and suggestions are very welcome! The tune they asked for was Ellacombe (‘The day of resurrection’).
All glory be to Jesus,
all joyful songs of praise!
Ascend, with him, the mountain,
And on him fix your gaze.
For Christ reveals his glory:
The Son’s bright shining rays;
The veil, worn thin, breaks open
to set the soul ablaze.
On earth, a glimpse of heaven,
in darkness, dazzling light;
From lowly plain and valley,
to holy mountain’s height.
Now all the world’s divisions
in Jesus may unite:
An ordinary moment
is blessed with God’s delight.
The light of light eternal
to faithful eyes is shown,
The mystery of the Godhead
The seeds of Jesus’ passion
in glory once were sown,
so fruits of resurrection
could out of death be grown.
The words of affirmation,
of challenge and command,
To listen, learn, and follow
in all that God has planned.
May graceful transformation
by God’s almighty hand,
empower us now for service
in this and every land.
We spent out honeymoon on the Isle of Mull, off the west coast of Scotland. It was early June, well before the summer tourist season, and we rather got the impression that we might be the only visitors to the island. We spent a largely very lazy week, eating a lot of extremely tasty freshly caught poached salmon, and wandering through the brightly-coloured streets of Tobermory. We were slightly more ambitious on one day, however, when we thought it might be nice to hire mountain bikes and explore the whole island. It was a beautiful day: bright sunshine, blue sky with not a single cloud. It turned out that mountain biking was harder than it looked: I was too unfit to ride up the hills, and too scared to ride down them. But around the middle of the day, I puffed and panted my way to the top of the biggest hill on the island, we laid down the bikes, and then had a really good look around.
What we saw was utterly breathtaking. Just over the crest of the hill was a lake. There was no wind; the surface of the water was as still as glass, and bluer than the sky. A kestrel hung in the air, right above the centre of the lake, his reflection captured in the water.
I think we stood like that for about five minutes, in complete silence. I actually cried, it was so perfectly beautiful.
A really good photographer might dare to try and preserve such a moment in film. I tried, even though I’m no photographer. But the picture was nothing like the real thing – the sky and the water of a photograph were never going to be quite blue enough, the silence of a simple printed image could never be as silent as a windless hilltop. The beauty that we experienced in that moment was for that moment – we couldn’t preserve it, capture it, or keep it for later.
But what we could do was let it change us. We could let that moment of absolute overwhelming beauty become part of us. We could let it make our world bigger. We could make sure that when we made our way down the hillside and back into town, our faces were still radiant from our encounter with that glimpse of heaven.
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.
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.