Hymn about 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
miraculously known.
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.

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.

Judgement and Salvation

Some thoughts on the readings for Advent 2 (Malachi 3.1-4 and Luke 3.1-6)

Judgement and salvation – two sides of the same coin.

Throughout the Old Testament prophetic tradition is the notion of ‘The Day of the Lord’ – in today’s first reading, it’s ‘The Day of his Coming’ (and I imagine we’re all hearing those words to Handel’s music, just as we do the words from Isaiah quoted in today’s gospel).  The Day of the Lord was both a message of hope – that there would come a time when God would intervene and save his chosen people from the various nations and races that had persecuted them – and a warning – that when the Day came, everyone would be judged, and that included God’s people themselves. Their birth-right, their national identity, their history, would not protect them if their own behaviour was just as worthy of judgement, condemnation and punishment as the behaviour of their oppressors.

Equally, within the tradition of the Day of the Lord is contained the possibility that God’s love and care can be extended far beyond the confines of the chosen people.  Isaiah, in particular, contains many oracles that hint at the eventual ingathering of the nations, drawn by the love and power of God, and converging on the ‘Holy Mountain’.

But our two readings today are about more than judgement and salvation. They are about transformation. We may look on the image of the refiners’ fire and equate it to the fires of hell; we may think of it as a means of punishment, of destruction. But the fire here is not one of punishment, but of purification, it is the purging of everything that is unworthy of God, and unworthy of who we really are, created in his image. It is the liberation of all that is good in us, it is our transformation from unwieldy lumps of rock to pure and precious gold. And God, the master-refiner, is the only one who can truly see within us, through all the stuff that gets in the way, and help us to become who we were always meant to be.

This is God’s judgement.  It’s devastating, but it’s life-giving. At present we are people of dross and gold, but God longs to burn away all our impurities and enable us to shine.  We are fields of wheat and weeds, and God longs for the time when he can pull up and destroy everything about us that will never be fruitful.  This is his judgement.  And this is his salvation.  Perhaps they are not two sides of the same coin, but in fact one in the same thing.  Judgement and salvation together are the transformation that only God can achieve.

Who can stand the day of his coming?  Well, plainly nobody can.  The idea of standing tall and proud while we are transformed so wonderfully is absurd.  We may kneel, or fall, we may be tossed about and overwhelmed, but if we try to stand on our own two feet, resilient and strong, self-reliant and in control, then we cannot possibly embrace the judgement, salvation and transformation that God longs to achieve in us.  We cannot stand in the face of this process. And it’s OK that we can’t.

In the Isaiah passage quoted in Luke’s gospel we also see transformation at work, but it is no longer the personal transformation of our souls, it is the transformation of the whole of creation, it’s almost a re-creation of the whole earth, a re-alignment of tectonic plates, with mountains sinking into the earth’s crust and valleys rising up in response, so that the winding roads which previously picked their way through the rise and fall of the landscape can now run straight.

It’s a metaphor, of course it is. There is nothing wrong with hills, or valleys, or indeed of roads with corners. But the transformation of the landscape is a global picture of the transformative power of God, the power to re-create, to re-form a world in which nothing can get in the way of God’s self-communication to his world. There are no barriers, nothing blocking our view of God, nothing that can stand in the way of God coming to us.  His path is straight, and his purpose is absolute.

We live in a complex world. Our life’s journeys are full of twists and turns, of uphill struggles, and descents, often into the valley of the shadow of death.  Even as we look out over the flat fenland fields (and that passage always makes me think of the road between Earith and Sutton, on the way of Ely), we may wish, sometimes, that our journey of life were a little more like that.  Few distractions, few gear changes, few challenges, nothing unexpected, because we can see for miles. A journey in which we can clearly see our destination and head towards it, just as we can see the Cathedral at Ely on the horizon when we are still miles away from it.

But there is a great deal of transforming to be done before that time.  There is much in us, as well as in the metaphorical landscape, that blocks our view of God, or that blocks other people’s view of God.  There is much twisting and turning in our own journey of faith, and there is much dross mingled with our gold.  We are in dire need of transformation, all of us, and this is a time of year when we’re encouraged to admit that.

But rather than write off this transformation as merely a future moment, promised long ago but yet to be fulfilled, and pinning our hopes on this future ‘Day of the Lord’, however painful it may be fore us, might we instead look for the signs that just like the days of creation, the day of the Lord is a long, long, process, and the judgement and transformation are not just for the future, but are happening right now, if we are willing to submit to them? Every time we meet together as God’s people we bring before him our sins, and we ask him to purify our hearts and lives.  We bring before him the complexity of our lives and ask him to show us a path through it all.

God is at work transforming us, and transforming this world right now.  All around us there are hints and glimpses of this process. Even as we look towards its ultimate completion, we can give thanks for the fact that God’s work of judgement and salvation is well under way, and that we are very much part of it – just as much as Malachi, as Isaiah, as Luke, and as John the Baptist were in their own day and in their own way.