The Great Trailer - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

The Great Trailer

Mark: 2-9

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And after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves: and he was transfigured before them.

And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them.

And there appeared unto them Elias with Moses: and they were talking with Jesus.

And Peter answered and said to Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias.

For he wist not what to say; for they were sore afraid.

And there was a cloud that overshadowed them: and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him.

And suddenly, when they had looked round about, they saw no man any more, save Jesus only with themselves.

And as they came down from the mountain, he charged them that they should tell no man what things they had seen, till the Son of man were risen from the dead.

The poet Rupert Brooke is, of course, famous for his war poetry.  But during his life, which was tragically cut short as a result of the First World War, he wrote poems on a host of other subjects as well, some of them full of irony and wit.

One of my personal favourites is a poem that he wrote in November 1908, when he was aged twenty one.  It is set in the rather unlikely context of a university exam (indeed, it is called simply 'In Examination') and it is wonderfully tongue-in-cheek.  

Just to set the scene for you: the poet, in the process of sitting an exam, observes the serried ranks of rather boring and unimpressive young men in the rows of desks around him, hunched over their exam papers, scribbling away - and he then describes how, quite suddenly, a shaft of sunlight breaks into the room, bathing all of his fellow exam candidates in golden light, transforming them into a vision of angels.  The language and imagery of the poem becomes increasingly over the top until the scene turns into a vision of God himself.  And then, just as swiftly as it appeared, the shaft of sunlight vanishes, and he is once again surrounded by a ramshackle collection of rather dull students, scribbling away.'  This is how Rupert Brooke describes the event:

Around me,
To left and to right,
Hunched figures and old,
Dull blear-eyed scribbling fools, grew fair,
Ringed round and haloed with holy light,
Flame lit on their hair,
And their burning eyes grew young and wise,
Each as a God, or King of kings,
White-robed and bright
(Still scribbling all);
And a full tumultuous murmur of wings
Grew throughout the hall;
And I knew the white undying Fire,
And, through open portals,
Gyre on gyre,
Archangels and angels, adoring, bowing,
And a Face unshaded ...
Till the light faded;
And they were fools again, fools unknowing,
Still scribbling, blear-eyed and stolid immortals.

The vision vanishes as the beam of sunlight disappears; it dissolves as quickly as it had arrived.  Normality resumes.  And the poet is once again surrounded by blear-eyed scribbling fools. I shall return to that image in a moment.

So, here we are, the final Sunday before the start of Lent, poised to enter the most significant penitential season of the Church's year, which begins this week on Ash Wednesday.  And what is our gospel reading for today?  That weird and rather perplexing story about the Transfiguration of Jesus, in which Jesus goes up a mountain with Peter, James and John, and is suddenly and dramatically transformed before their very eyes, into a figure clothed in dazzling white.

Now, you might with justification be puzzled about why it is that we hear that particular story today - because what possibly relevance can it have for us on the final Sunday before Lent? - particularly given that, as any liturgical anoraks amongst you will be aware, the Transfiguration already has its own special day in the Church's calendar, on the 6th August.  So why on earth have that particular story today as well?

It has always struck me that the story of the Transfiguration is, in fact, a very appropriate gospel reading for us to be hearing today, for the following reason.

During the whole of the time that the disciples spent with Jesus during his earthly ministry, it is the event of the Transfiguration that gives them the most clear and unambiguous glimpse of what ultimately lies ahead, both for them and for him.  Because in the moment that Jesus is transfigured, the disciples are given a foretaste of the Risen, Ascended, and Glorified Christ.  

Peter's reaction to this extraordinary event is all too recognizably human: he wants to seize that moment and bottle it - to keep hold of it for all time.  'Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah', he says.  But Peter has completely misunderstood the nature and significance of the event.  Because the Transfiguration of Jesus functions a bit like a trailer for a forthcoming film or tv series.  And although a trailer can certainly whet your appetite for a wonderful film (after all, that is what it is designed to do) it can never be a substitute for the film itself - indeed, it is generally the case that it is only when you see the film that you can begin to understand what is really going on in the trailer.  

The Transfiguration is an experience given to the disciples as a profoundly eye-opening moment of insight and inspiration; a key to help them to understand the events that were about to begin unfolding around them. And a source of encouragement for them during the difficult times ahead.  Although, at the time, they had no way of knowing that that was its function - simply because they had no real idea of what it was that lay ahead of them.  However, unlike them, we do know, so we can see it for what it is.

And so, as we get ready to enter the season of Lent, in which we prepare ourselves for the life-changing events of Holy Week and Easter, the Transfiguration - that fleeting moment of insight into what it is that lies at the end of our journey, and what that journey is for - is very well timed indeed.

To return to the Rupert Brooke poem that I read to you a few moments ago.  It has always seemed to me that there are some interesting similarities, but also some important differences, between the experience that Rupert Brooke had in that exam room, and the experience that the disciples had of the transfigured Jesus.

What they have in common is that both accounts describe an instant in which the appearance of normal flesh-and-blood human beings is suddenly and dramatically transformed into one of heavenly angelic beings: Brooke's exam candidates transformed by a simple shaft of bright sunlight; Jesus transfigured by the power of the glory of the Lord.  But, of course, whereas the Transfiguration enables the disciples see beyond the flesh and blood Jesus to glimpse his true identity, by contrast there is absolutely nothing truly angelic about Brooke's fellow exam candidates, the 'blear-eyed scribbling fools'.

Except, that I do find myself wondering what God would see as he looked down upon those ranks of examination candidates. 'Blear-eyed scribbling fools?' Or is each one of them his precious child, created in his image, made 'just a little lower than the angels', as Psalm 8 puts it?

There are moments in life when the sheer effort of living alongside our fellow human beings - particularly those whom we really could do without - can make it hard for us to remember that each and every one of them has been made in the image of God, only a little lower than the angels, and precious in his sight.

Which is why it seems to me that there are two rather important truths arising from all of this, that we need to carry with us as we prepare for the start of the season of Lent.  The first is to remember who Christ truly is, and why it matters that we undertake that journey alongside him - hence the importance of the Transfiguration story, which answers those questions for us, by presenting us with a wonderful 'trailer' of what is still to come .  But the second is the importance of remembering who our fellow human beings are, too: the blear-eyed scribbling fools for whose sake Christ was prepared to go into the wilderness, and to walk the way of the Cross, just as he was for us.  Because however foolish, they, like us, are precious in his sight.  

And thanks be to God for that.  Amen.

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