Exodus 24.12-18; 2Peter 1.16-21; Matthew 17.1-9
Transfiguration Sunday – a day when we reflect on something which we cannot rationalise or readily explain. This story is told in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, making it something that we can’t simply dismiss because it’s a bit tricky to get our heads around. It’s a story that has at its heart revealed truth. The season of Epiphany began with the story of the Magi and our reflections on the truth of the incarnation that was revealed to all people. That seasons ends today with another story about revelation – this time an ‘in your face’, ‘can’t be anything else’ kind of revelation about the full nature of Jesus as true God and true man.
I wonder what was in the disciples’ minds as they set off up that mountain with Jesus. He’d taken them up mountains before – to pray; to get away from the crowds; to teach. I think we can assume that they were anticipating some or perhaps all of those motivations. They may have been prepared for some kind of a surprise – there were often surprises as they journeyed with their Messiah – but this was of a different order. To be faced by the dazzling light; to see the glory of God shining from Jesus, rather than on him, was more than they could comprehend. They simply didn’t know how to respond.
We’re not too surprised to see that Peter went into action mode. What can we do? Let’s build some shelters. But that clearly was not what was required. And in the midst of their confusion and their lack of comprehension and their inability to function – in the midst of all of that God spoke to them.
When we read a story like this one, we might feel confusion and a lack of comprehension and an inability to find any way to respond. But what we read this morning is that it was exactly at that point, exactly when they were at their least rational, most vulnerable, most confused, that they recognised the presence of God. So what might help us to recognise the presence of God?
I think it’s unlikely that there will be any dazzling lights in the Cathedral this morning; I’m not anticipating clouds descending inside the building, so I’m wondering where the in your face encounter might come from.
If we reflect again on the text, there are steps that take the disciples from an ordinary moment to an extraordinary one. Something happened that was so unexpected they had no idea what was going on. Something happened, that they observed, and that had an impact on them that was emotional and visceral. It wasn’t a response in their heads, it was a response that came from the depths of their very being.
This building is not short of things that might dazzle our eyes if we only took the time to engage with them. There is a whole range of visual arts within this Cathedral and I guess that most of us barely notice most of them much of the time. We can’t miss the impact of the Paolozzi window as it makes its presence known through the course of a sunny Sunday morning and one of the reasons we notice it time and again is because the spray of colour is never the same on any two occasions. Sometimes it catches the choristers’ hair; sometimes it bounces off the stone pillars or the metal railings. We notice it because one moment it’s not there – and then it is.
But when was the last time you – or I -looked, really looked, at some of the art on the walls?
Many of us will make visits to art galleries either here or in other places and will spend time with works of art. Some of those works will speak to us, some of them will dazzle our eyes, some of them will unexpectedly lead us into a new engagement with God.
There is much in this building that offers that very experience. Much that deserves more than a passing glance, more than being just the wallpaper on the walls of our Cathedral – something that is so familiar we barely notice it is there. It’s been interesting to observe that people have noticed the absence of the painting of the healing of the man who was deaf and dumb; people who hadn’t necessarily spent time with that painting, but had become aware that something was missing. I can tell you that it is being delivered back to us tomorrow and perhaps that gives us an ideal opportunity over the next few weeks to spend a bit of time with that painting, to go a bit deeper and to see how we find ourselves responding.
Of course, visual material that might dazzle our eyes is not just to be found within these four walls. We encounter art and images in all sorts of places – and how often do we pause to engage with them? There’s a thought for Lent – to simply be more observant as we go in and out of different places. If we’re fortunate enough to find something that stops us in our tracks, we may find that we don’t have immediate words of response. Like Peter and James and John we may feel some confusion, be unable to put our finger on how we are feeling, perhaps even find ourselves experiencing some strong and uncomfortable emotion. The art that provokes a definite response may not be the art that we like, may not be the art that we would want to have in our homes but might well be the art that has the power to shake us up and bring us to that place of wonder, a place where we may just be a little more open to pausing for long enough that we might unexpectedly find ourselves encountering God.
We’re not only discomforted and shaken up by works of visual art. There are many other ways that we get in touch with our emotional selves, ways that we can be surprised by God. One that we are very familiar with in this place is music.
Another that is familiar to many of us is through learning about people whose lives are very different from ours. Take a look at the material that has been produced this year for Fairtrade fortnight. Look out for the story books that are hidden around the Cathedral. Read the real life stories and allow them to have an impact on you. Peter and James and John were overcome by their emotions; they had no idea how to respond and felt there was little they could do. Faced with an insight into lives that are so different from ours, we may well share those responses. But we’re not being asked to fix everything; remember that up that mountain, building a shelter wasn’t required. The change came when the disciples, having been surprised by what they saw, were open to their own emotional responses. All that we are asked to do is to allow ourselves to be surprised, to welcome that surprise, and to allow ourselves to be led by the emotional response that follows.