A glorious radiance
Stephen Adam, 26 February 2017
Exodus 24: 12–18; Matthew 17: 1–9
The highly distinguished Cambridge church historian Professor Owen Chadwick was the biographer of the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, the great Michael Ramsey, who served in that post for 13 years from 1961. He tells the story of how the archbishop, by then very elderly and frail, preached his final sermon to the All Saints Sisters in the chapel of their house in Cowley, Oxford. The Mother Superior was fearful that the archbishop would not be audible. She needn’t have worried – every word was heard, and Chadwick records that ‘each time he said “glory” it came out as a shout!’
Appropriately, on the archbishop’s memorial stone in Canterbury Cathedral are inscribed the famous words of Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in the second century: The glory of God is the living man; and the life of man is the vision of God.
Ramsey was someone whose life shone through transparently, reflecting the love of God to others. Perhaps in our own journeys through life we have encountered such people who leave a lasting impression on us?
The supreme example of glory shining through is in our gospel reading today – that strange story of Jesus being transfigured on the mountain top. The story appears not only in Matthew’s gospel, but also in Mark and Luke. Although St John does not include it, in a sense the whole of that fourth gospel is an extended reflection on the glory of Jesus as the Beloved Son. If we follow the lectionary, the transfiguration story is read every year on this Sunday, the Sunday before Lent, or Quinquagesima – the amber traffic light which warns that Lent is near.
The story marks a point of climax in the gospel. In the previous chapter Jesus had asked his disciples, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter replies, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’. He just does not understand the full implications of the confession he has made. Now, six days later, Peter, James and John are on the mountain top as the mists dissolve, and Jesus becomes dazzling white – perhaps in some sort of vision – and is revealed to them as he truly is: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!’
This is not so much a disclosure of another side of Jesus, pointing to some sort of alternative reality; but rather all the bits of the jigsaw come together, falling into place to reveal both Jesus’ full humanity and his divine nature. This radiance marks nothing less than the revealing of his full identity: Jesus coming in fulfilment of all that the Law and Prophets had longed for – something underlined by the gospel writers, who report Jesus in the company of Moses and Elijah on the mountain.
Perhaps many of us have had mountain-top experiences, when something suddenly lifts our spirits, when the commonplace is transformed and we catch a glimpse of something extraordinary and beyond ourselves. We might be moved by the play of light on a cloud, transported by a piece of music or art or poetry; or it may be the experience of falling in love, or being captivated by some experience on holiday.
Our natural instinct is to want to hold on to such precious, transcendental moments, to bottle then up and store them. That’s Peter’s instinct on the mountain top as he blurts out about building three tents or shrines on the mountain, to capture and contain the moment.
But we know in our hearts that’s not possible. Edwin Muir expresses it well in his poem, ‘The Transfiguration’:
… reality or vision, this we have seen.
If it had lasted but another moment
it might have held for ever! But the world
rolled back into its place, and we are here,
and all that radiant kingdom lies forlorn,
as if it had never stirred …
Yes, that mountain-top experience speaks of something wonderful, full of awe and glory and hope; but it cannot be held indefinitely.
Moses came down from Mount Sinai to find the Israelites in their camp below running amok, worshipping the golden calf; so too, as Jesus descends the mountain, the narrative darkens as he turns towards Jerusalem and his Passion – a journey that we too will embark on next week, through Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent, culminating in Holy Week.
That passage in Matthew’s gospel is book-ended by verses foretelling Jesus’ death and the way of the cross. And so we begin to understand that the true glory of the transfiguration will turn out to be the glory of Jesus’ self-emptying for us on the cross.
We begin to understand that the true glory of the transfiguration will turn out to be the glory of Jesus’ self-emptying for us on the cross.
And so, not really understanding what they have seen, the disciples come down from the mountain, where the world in all its messiness awaits them, just as it awaits us as we come down from those ‘thin’ moments and engage with the realities of life, which seem more than usually complex and troubling at present.
The priest John Pridmore, who writes so well and imaginatively, wryly commented once how those of us on earth – saints though we may all be! – while we may sometimes be granted glimpses of heaven, if they are to be of any earthly use we mustn’t luxuriate in them.
And he tells of how he was once on a retreat at a convent. The dry old Mother Superior noticed that one of the nuns was late joining them for breakfast. ‘Another ecstasy!’ she muttered sternly. Or, as C. S. Lewis put it, ‘Heaven beckons, but meanwhile there’s Monday morning!’
And in case we get too carried away with the beauty of the mountain-top experience, this vision of divine splendour and glory, it’s salutary as well to reflect on the geographical context of the transfiguration story.
While biblical scholars differ on where the gospel writers had in mind as a location, I’m told that the best candidate is Mount Hermon, almost 3,000 metres high, lying on the borders of Israel, Syria and Lebanon. It’s near the Golan Heights, those ancient hills where – as every cathedral boy chorister knows – Og was King of Bashan.
My point is that the landscape where Christ revealed his glory was not in the imagined oasis of ‘Sabbath rest by Galilee, the calm of hills above’, but rather in a place where the lands have been bitterly fought over and contested for thousands of years and where blood goes on being spilt today. It’s in just such a place that Jesus reveals his glory and tells his disciples how this glory will involve his suffering and death.
Next Wednesday we start our own journey through Lent. We start with ash – a symbol perhaps of the destructive power of fire and a reminder of our own mortality. But our Lenten journey finishes with light, with new creating fire with that marvellous first service of Easter Eve with the Vigil and Service of Light: in the pre-dawn darkness we carry the paschal candle through the church, chanting ‘The Light of Christ!’ Out of the darkness of the Passion comes radiant light.
As we ponder the strange account of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain top, I wonder whether the disciples were given this glimpse of the true glory of Jesus to sustain them through all that was to lie ahead, when their faith would be challenged as never before – a time that was to end in betrayal, flight and despair before that glorious first Easter Day?
There’s a beautiful sonnet by the poet-priest Malcolm Guite imagining a disciple looking back to the transfiguration from the bleakness of Good Friday:
For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this this blackened sky, this darkened scar,
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.
Those words really strike me:
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up.
Can we in Lent try to cultivate a sense of sharpened observation, learning to listen to the divine presence incarnate in us, learning to see with a fresh intensity and awareness, searching for those ‘rumours’ of God’s presence?
The glory of God is the living man; and the life of man is the vision of God.