Carrying the glory from mount to plain - St Bride's: Reflection

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St Bride's: Sermons

Carrying the glory from mount to plain

Matthew 17: 1-9

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1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

I expect many of us are familiar with the allure of mountains and will have experienced days of walking with the sun shining and the air clear.  Some I'm sure, like me, will have experienced how close the experience of walking in the hills feels to prayer; days when the gift of life is most obvious to us, when we find ourselves breathing in wonder and gratitude for God's creation and when the prison cell of our usual absorptions is sprung.  For my wife Sandra and I, possible retreats to religious communities and plans for pilgrimages have come to be considered side by side, the experiences having so much in common for us. 

Mountains in scripture are not just rock-bound wastes and soaring peaks. They are mysterious places and liminal spaces.  The Gospels shows us that Jesus frequently headed to the hills in order to pray alone in preparation for significant events.

The transfiguration was of particular significance; it marks the point in Jesus' ministry when he turns his face definitively towards Jerusalem.  Here begins the long road to Golgotha.   At Christ's baptism a voice from heaven had proclaimed "this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased".  The transfiguration echoes that event when again these words are heard to come from the clouds. 

There are also striking resonances with events from Old Testament including that of our first reading from Exodus which told of Moses' ascent of Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights.  The transfiguration places Jesus in continuity with the law through Moses and the prophets through Elijah who scripture tells us ascended into heaven from the mountain top.  Now divine authority rests on Christ, not because the law and the prophets no longer count, but because the law and the prophets are gathered up and fulfilled in what he is about to accomplish.

It is striking that in Peter's Second Letter it is the transfiguration rather than the resurrection that is presented as the guarantee of the glory that awaits faithful believers at the end of time. "We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain", he says.  "So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed". 

Gospel accounts of the transfiguration evoke a sense of beauty, wonder and awe. Jesus' face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.  This does not mean that the disciples witnessed an optical illusion.  Rather, the passage points to how his disciples saw in Jesus the divine presence.  What changed was not reality, but their perception of it.

We can apply a similar reappraisal to all of humanity. It is not only Christ that we should see transfigured, but, as the Quakers put it, we must endeavour to see 'that of God in everybody' regardless of how difficult our relationship with others might be, or how wide a divergence there might be in our views and priorities.  In this way the transfiguration of Christ presents us with a formidable challenge, urging us to search for and respect God's footprints throughout creation, and to view poor, failing, fallen humanity as infused with divine light. This becomes most difficult when we are faced with people who wreak destruction, fear, genocide, and other terrible crimes on the world.  There is a great temptation to shy away from this difficulty and to use moral disapprobation as our justification.  St Paul points us in a different direction in words that echo the transfiguration - "and we all with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another," he says.  All this requires a great deal of prayer.

Brother Ramon, a Franciscan from my home town, Swansea, writes that in the account of the transfiguration we have the life of prayer portrayed before our eyes.  The initiative is with the father, he says.  Jesus gave himself to the prayer of vision in self-surrendered freedom and discipline and the uncreated light of the Holy Spirit floods his being and overflows into the natural order.  The divine presence saturates the mountain, and the voice from the excellent glory fills the disciples with awe and amazement.

These are moments of wonder, of holy fear, of contemplative vision, he says.  The plain of human need stretches out below with all its opportunities and challenges to loving service.  But here on the holy mount, the vision encapsulates and saturates all those caught up in its glory.

Jesus carries the glory from mount to plain.  The splendour and vision of the glory of God is translated into compassion, healing and works of mercy.  Jesus, humble and transfigured, is the paradigm of the life of prayer.  And we are called to follow him.

This kind of vision of prayer, not as something compartmentalised in our lives but as something utterly transformational is both inspiring and potentially terrifying.  The prison cell of our self-absorption is so much more familiar and comfortable.  Janet Morley captures the simultaneous longing to experience the beauty of God in Jesus Christ and the sheer terror of encountering something beyond human powers and imagination.

O God, whose beauty is beyond our imagining and whose power we cannot comprehend: show us your glory as far as we can grasp it and shield us from knowing more than we can bear until we may look upon you without fear; through Jesus Christ.

Amen.

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