Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Ever since I first became aware of the awful coincidence, I’ve felt a sense of unease about the fact that the 6th August, the date on which the church commemorates the Transfiguration, and that mystical cloud on the mountain, is also the date on which the atomic bomb was unleashed on Hiroshima in 1945. Under the mushroom cloud above Hiroshima, over 92,000 people died on that day and in the two weeks to come. Many more, probably almost the same number again, have died from the effects of radiation in the years which followed.
But on the flip side of this cruelly ironic coin of coincidence is a fleeting yet powerful glimpse of the radiant glory of heaven, as a few of Jesus’s closest friends had their eyes opened to the truth about him as he stood in front of them and his appearance changed. Transfixed by that transfiguration, for a moment, their everyday world was penetrated by the divine, by the light which refuses to be extinguished even when human beings do their utmost to let darkness get the upper hand.
The real power of this story is that for those of us with eyes to see, ears to hear and hearts to understand, that light can transfigure us whenever we open ourselves to the divine presence and realise afresh that God’s glory is to be found when human beings – when we – let our lives be caught up in the wonder and the mystery of it all, and in the potential of what we might become. In the Christian understanding, that stands its best chance when humanity tunes into the voice from the cloud on the mountain-top, ‘This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!’ If we really did that, there would surely be more cloud of heaven than mushroom cloud of destruction.
In a predominantly rationalist and scientific age, some progressive Christians find stories involving the inexplicable, like Jesus’ Transfiguration, which we’ve just read, or, indeed, miracles, rather awkward. The temptation often is to ask, ‘Did it really happen?’ I’ve sometimes asked that myself, but long ago decided it isn’t the right question to ask. It is pretty futile anyway, for how can we ever know? Nowadays, we are normally careful to distinguish objective reporting from mere story-telling, but this account of the Transfiguration comes from a different age and a different culture. Precision in reporting back then was secondary to the intended message, which may be why the Gospel writers sometimes contradict each other in reporting the same events. As so often when it comes to trying to get some sort of grasp on theology, I turn to the story writers and the poets. What do they make of this mysterious Transfiguration?
The contemporary poet Malcolm Guite has a lovely take on it in his column in this week’s Church Times newspaper. He describes a walk during which he experienced a glimpse of what he calls ‘translucence’ in nature – just the sort of thing the Romantic poets so often write about – Coleridge, say, or Wordsworth. Perhaps you, too, have had a similar experience, where you are aware of something extraordinarily beautiful and moving, even if just for a moment or two, before coming back to everyday reality. Guite relates his glimpse to the more extensive vision on the Mount of Transfiguration. He links it with the story of Moses and the burning bush. Both stories disclose that the divine presence does not annihilate what it meets; rather, it transfigures it and fulfils it.
The bush is not consumed by the flames, but stays as true and rooted in earth as ever, though now resplendent with heaven. And Moses, who pays it new attention, takes off his shoes as he recognises he is treading on holy ground. Moses doesn’t stop being grounded, and nor does he fail to see the common bush in front of his eyes – but he does now realise that, actually, nothing is common. The divine presence is there to be encountered, even in the ordinary stuff of life. We do, indeed, tread holy ground.
So, too, his divine nature does not do away with the ordinary body that Jesus shares with us, but on that mountain the veil is lifted and in the dazzling white we see ‘heaven in ordinary’, which is how another poet, George Herbert, puts it.
Perhaps the moment of the burning bush and the moment of transfiguration are one and the same moment. In the first, God promises Moses, ‘I will come down’. In the other, that is fulfilled, and Moses is there to see the transfiguration happen. As Malcolm Guite puts it in his own poem on today’s feast, ‘For that one moment in and out of time/On that mountain where all moments meet…..’ Elizabeth Barrett Browning is another poet who captures the moment, ‘Earth’s crammed with heaven/And every common bush afire with God/But only he who sees, takes off his shoes’. This is such a corrective to the sort of theology that arrogantly assumes it has God all summed up, or the sort that asserts ‘Jesus is my mate’. The Transfiguration of Jesus takes us on to holy ground, and the cloud symbolises the mystery of the divine.
However, we cannot forget that this was not just about poetry for Jesus. Yes, the Gospels present it as an experience of personal transformation for him, a moment of enlightenment, but not in merely esoteric terms. From this point on, Jesus seems clearer in his mind that he must set his face towards Jerusalem, despite the fact that his vision of what he understood God’s kingdom to be about would inevitably lead to a confrontation with both the political and the religious authorities. The disciples have a different response to this Transfiguration, it seems. Peter, we read, thought this experience demanded a religious response. He wanted to construct symbolic tabernacles, or tents, in an attempt to preserve this transforming moment. Throughout Christian history, it has been tempting to seek to honour Jesus with magnificent buildings, statues and artwork, to contain the revelatory moment, rather than allow it to result in a transformed life – though buildings that are part of our communities, yet also set apart, do, of course, help to foster that sense of holiness and the holy ground of divine encounter.
The holy ground of the mountain top may encourage us to a fresh vision, but according to Luke’s account, Jesus, the very next day, led his disciples from the mountain of mystery down to the reality of everyday life. That is where the vision must be worked out. The mountain top is a wonderful place to experience something of the mystery and the holiness that divinity speaks of, and to gain a sense of perspective, but it is not the place to stay. The key thing the Christian gospel urges us towards is transformation – in our own lives, our community, our church, our country and our world. It was the writer C.S. Lewis who pointed out that while heaven may be beckoning, you still have Monday morning to get through.
The last word on the mountain of Transfiguration goes to God, who says, ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him!’ We are being urged to catch the vision; to listen to the beloved Son, Jesus; to see in what ways our lives and the world we inhabit can be transformed by his life. That implies taking a penetrating look at ourselves, because I reckon the God we encounter in Jesus is probably more interested in what we have the potential to become rather than what we might have got wrong in our past, or, indeed, in our present, and that may have blocked our vision of the moment of transfiguration. Luke implies that transfiguration is not just for Jesus; it is the destiny of his followers as well. The transfiguration of the dust of our humanity is none other than the Christian hope of glory.