+ ‘You will do well to be attentive to this, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts’.
We are just about to go into Lent and the Church gives us the story of the transfiguration of Jesus. This happened at a time of transition in the ministry of Jesus and the disciples. Things change gear. Just before the transfiguration Matthew notes that from that time Jesus began to tell his disciples he must go to Jerusalem, suffer and be killed. Jesus repeated this message twice afterwards.
What do you hold on to when things get tough? Things like a bereavement, a breakdown, persecution, abuse, the loss of a job, the ending of a relationship – they all collapse the normal, comfortable structure of our life. It can happen quite suddenly. Like the terrible earthquake in Syria and Turkey. It can collapse the normal, comfortable structure of our religion. In Iris Murdoch’s excellent novel The Bell, Toby goes to work at an Anglican lay community between school and university. One evening he is kissed by an older man. His world falls apart. Murdoch writes ‘Toby had received one of the earliest lessons of adult life: that one is never secure. At any moment one can be removed from a state of guileless serenity and plunged into its opposite, without any intermediate condition, so high about us do the waters rise of our own and other people’s imperfection’.
Have you ever had an experience like that? For Jesus and his disciples, the ministry in Galilee caused dissention and now death is on the horizon in the shape of the cross. It is at this very moment that Jesus gives his inner circle, Peter, James and John, a vision of the reality behind the appearances of this world. They go up the mountain, like Moses in the first lesson, but unlike Moses they don’t receive the Law, instead they see Jesus. ‘He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzlingly white’.
This is not something added to the human Jesus. It is more like the veil is removed and the three see Jesus as he really is: the Lord God of Israel and Son of the Father. But the veil is not the flesh – Jesus doesn’t just become light. His face and his clothes are still there. Madonna famously sung (& later regretted the song) “I am a material girl, living in a material world’. Our Christian faith doesn’t reject or leave behind the material world but it is transfigured, like the face and clothes of Jesus.
The inner circle of disciples are given this vision to strengthen them for the coming ordeal. It’s something they can hold on to when all else fails. Peter runs away and betrays Jesus but later, in his letter, our second reading, he is still holding on to this experience on the Mountain of Transfiguration, ‘we were eyewitnesses of his glory’.
‘We ourselves heard the voice from heaven This is my Son, my beloved, when we were with him on the holy mountain’. he goes on to say, ‘You will do well to be attentive to this, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts’. It is a lamp shining is the dark place of the crucifixion and the dark places of our lives.
This week we start Lent. It’s a time to renew our faith, in the email I sent out yesterday there are many opportunities for prayer, fasting, almsgiving and study here at Holy Cross. Now is the time to fire up your faith.
But while the disciples made the effort to climb the mountain the vision of Christ transfigured was not a reward for this, it was pure gift. We do our bit, but God is real. Sometimes God irrupts into our lives with light, insight, vision and glory. Our job is to make sure we are not so spiritually dull, heavy and irreligious that we may catch the glimpse of glory. Our secular society can’t get this. But the new vigil lamps by our icons remind us that the flame is there.
Sometimes, even today, the saints shine with heavenly light. In Russia St Seraphim of Sarov was transfigured before the journalist Motovilov, and when his monastery was turned into a prison camp in Soviet times there were many accounts of heavenly light appearing to the prisoners. We may see someone transfigured, but for most of us it is a quieter vision.
As Peter said, ‘You will do well to be attentive to this, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.’ The dawning of the day in our hearts can be an apprehension of God present in nature, in the woods, in a relationship, in the quiet of our hearts. In this we see creation as God sees it. The disciples saw Jesus as the Word of God. He is the creator of all and every created thing has its own word of God at the heart of its being. If you don’t look, if you don’t climb the spiritual mountain, you will never hear this word or see its light.
This Lent, amidst our prayer and good works, give time just to be, to look, to contemplate. Perhaps go for a walk. May you be given the grace to see the material world transfigured by the uncreated light of God. May the morning star rise in your hearts. And may this lamp shine when life is dark.