(Genesis 15, 1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3.17-4.1; Luke 9.28-36)
‘Now about eight days after these sayings, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white.’
So begins our Gospel reading from Luke, that strange story of transfiguration, as it is usually described, when Jesus’ face shines like the sun and his clothes become white as the light.
It’s a story about prayer and about glory. That combination might suggest beginning this sermon with famous words from Gerard Manley Hopkins:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil
That would suggest that we take this story of a mountaintop epiphany as an exemplar of a much more common phenomena: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” The transfiguration is suggested as an example of those moments that many experience, when time stands still, when you glimpse the more, the God who works in and through all things. The fact that the transfiguration occurs on a mountaintop is no accident, we might say, for that is where many of us, in the exhilaration of a mountaintop, the world laid out below us, where many of us experience an overwhelming sense of God’s grandeur and glory. Or we could talk of those moments of transcendence and epiphany occurring when we witness an act of un-self-interested love, when our perception of friends, neighbours, strangers is suddenly altered by an act of grace.
That is one way to approach, seek to understand, this strange story of the Transfiguration – that it is a heightened example of an experience that many have fleetingly experienced. It is, in the case of the gospel story, centered on Jesus, but it is not particular to him. But I’m not sure it gets to the heart of what is being claimed, and presented here. This is not simply an example of a general phenomena, but an experience that brings into focus the very particular claim that the disciples would go on to make about this person, Jesus.
Edwin Muir, in his poem, The Transfiguration, enters the mind of the three disciples as they reflect on that mountaintop moment:
Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
The story of the Transfiguration is about the seeing of the unseeable; the undoing of that locking of the gate of Eden that is everywhere and nowhere – the way back, and forward, to Paradise. Not an example of a general phenomena, but a revealing of the particular truth of this person, Jesus. This is shown explicitly in icons of the transfiguration where Jesus does not simply reflect light from another source, but is the light source itself, it is from Jesus that glory shines forth and causes those around – the three disciples in most icons, to cast shadows from that light emanating from Jesus himself. He does not simply reflect the light and glory of God – he is the light and glory.
The context of our gospel reading is important: it comes after Jesus has talked to his disciples about the way of the cross, and the suffering to which his path commits him, and his disciples. And then he goes, on this eighth day, up a mountain, to pray, to seek after God’s presence in prayer. There is a symbolic importance to that eighth day, the day beyond the seventh day, the day of Sabbath rest – the eight day is the day of resurrection, the day of new creation. We are used to days 1 to 7, here is the eighth day, the day beyond and outside our normal pattern and practices. We enter something transcendent here. Moses and Elijah are part of that eternity of God’s dealings with humanity – Jesus is seen as linked to those depths. And for Peter and James and John this experience of prayer, this seeing of Christ in a new light, asa new light, ends with the command: ‘This is my Son, my chosen, listen to him.’ Listen to him: shape our lives around this one from whom glory radiates. This is God – in this human life of prayer and suffering and love.
The other context for our Gospel reading is the context provided by today, the Sunday before Lent, and also by it being Fairtrade Sunday. We are encouraged, in prayer, before we enter the self-reflection and disciplines of Lent, to see that unseeable one glory which Christ embodies, and to invite it to shape us.
For Fairtrade Sunday we are particularly thinking about chocolate, and the producers of cocoa who sustain our consumption. In the Ivory Coast, 4 million people grow cocoa, much of which comes to the UK. More than 60% of those cocoa farmers live below the United Nations poverty line of £1.47 per day. In the light of the glory emanating from the one who comes to save all humanity, in that light, and listening to him, are those cocoa farmers simply to be exploited for all that we can get? Or does that opening of the gate into another reality, suggest we too might shape our relations with one another not on the basis of economic power and muscle, but on relationship and mutuality. It is that relationship and mutuality, restored again and again by Jesus in the healings he provokes as he walks the way of the cross; relationship and mutuality that are at the heart of Fairtrade, that we are called to embody, be shaped by, in the light of that one glory which Christ embodies.
Up on the mountain top, Peter famously wants to preserve the moment – ‘let us make three dwellings’ he says. This peak experience needs to be captured, memorialized. But that is not to be – rather this moment, this timeless, transcendent moment, is bound to everything else, this glory perpetually at work. This moment of prayer leads to what follows – Jesus plunging down the mountain – into a round of healing and binding up, and suffering. And so on to Jerusalem and another time when Jesus will take Peter, John and James with him to pray – in the garden of Gethsemane. Pray, not so that Jesus is transfigured with light, but in agony – Father, let this cup of suffering pass. This is our Lenten journey, to walk and pray with Christ in moments of transfiguration and glory, and to walk and pray in moments of agony and darkness. And at all times, to listen to him. Amen.