Today we wrap up the season of Epiphany and on Wednesday we have Ash Wednesday – we enter the season of Lent.
And every year on this last Sunday of Epiphany we have the story that we call the Transfiguration. When Jesus takes three of his inner sanctum of disciples with him as he climbs a mountain and he glows with radiance and the glory of God comes upon him and we hear a voice declare that Jesus is the Beloved… the Son of God… listen to him.
It is a story we cannot explain, or fully comprehend. It is a big story, one that is not exhausted on one or a hundred or a thousand readings. It is a story to return to many times, a story to feed the soul. And our souls desperately need feeding or else they shrivel and we perish.
One of the themes in today’s reading is “glory”.
Glory…. is that a word you use? For me it seems to be a word that has an old fashioned ring about it, as in “the glory of the British empire”, or people of my parents generation using it as a expression of mild amazement, as in “Glory, who would have thought it!” or if used in a contemporary setting seems to often have sporting conations, like when Cathy Freeman covered herself in glory at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. But it is little in use in everyday language. Perhaps in nature, as in a glorious sunset.
What words would you use to convey glory?
But there is in the Bible a constant theme that the glory of God breaks into our world. Now, because it is the glory of God, you can’t just casually stroll into the presence of it at your own timing. And you certainly can’t talk about it in everyday language and hope you have in any way captured or conveyed God’s glory.
No, you need to call upon rarefied language, words strain to carry the weight of profound and deep experiences that touch the depths of our being. So whenever these ancient writers wished to convey something of God’s glory expect to read of pillars of dazzling light, choirs of angelic beings, visions of angels, cherubim and seraphim, and bushes that burn but are not consumed and thundering voices coming out of clouds.
And today we have much of that sort of language because today’s story wants to convey something of the glory of God that is revealed in Jesus Christ. A story of the transfiguration, the changing in appearance of Jesus as he shone with the pure light of God.
As we sit with, and in, this story we know as the Transfiguration we are pulled into a world we infrequently visit. An unfamiliar yet strangely compelling land of glory and wonder. In the Celtic tradition they know there are such places on earth where the distance between the glory of God and the everyday world becomes lessened. These locations are called thin places. In the bible mountains are frequently such a place. Anyone willing to expend the time and energy and commitment to figuratively climb the high mountain to enter this land, and to simply sit will experience strange and transforming things. Of course to do so you would have to stop running around, doing things, being busy, perhaps even deep down finding the busyness can be a secretly gratifying distraction from going inward.
Reminds me of the guy who was often the greeter at Brunswick when I was there who sometimes asks people how they are, and when the reply comes, as it so often does, “oh busy” Barry gently follows up with, “I did not ask what you have been doing but how you are”.
If we stay with Jesus on this mountain but allow ourselves to become quiet and stilled for a decent length of time at first we would perhaps find ourselves anxiously babbling like Peter and his bizarre offer to build three booths for Jesus and the other heroes of the faith, not knowing or understanding what is happening to us. Perhaps the prattling is a sign of being overcome with the purity of the eternal, what in the old language was called, “the fear of the Lord”. Perhaps a less noble explanation of Peter’s prattling was that it is simply fear of losing control.
And why does our lectionary choose this story of the glory of Christ to be both the climax of epiphany and the doorway into Lent. Well, it takes us to the heat of the Christian faith. This is perhaps the most stunning insight of the earliest Christians. There is one other way they learnt to talk about the glory of God. A place no-one would have anticipated purity and holiness to reside. A location despised and rejected by all honourable and religious people. What they learnt to say is that the glory of God is found not just the in religious traditions, and the worship in the temple, and the glorious sunset, and the birth of a baby, but within the tortured body of a criminal upon an ugly wooden cross. Not because God revels in suffering and bloodshed, far from it, but because here we see the cost to God of loving each of us, here in the death of this one we see the response of humanity that we cannot make consistently, here is the faithfulness without counting the cost and the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus. For this outsider, as Jesus has become, is today once again revealed as the Son of God. That insight is also present in today’s story with its talk of Jesus departure.
And so today’s story of glory is our last gospel reading before we again enter Lent with its confronting challenge to take up the cross and follow Jesus. It is only on that road to Jerusalem and inevitable crucifixion that both the glory of transfiguration and the glory of the lowly way are mingled so they become one way, one path. As Jesus says to his friends, it is only those who have walked this path who have learnt to speak of what true glory is. It is hard enough to talk of these things later but pre-crucifixion it is too easy to bask in the applause and recognition of the world.
Today is the last Sunday in this season of Epiphany, which is all about the unveiling, or the revealing of the glory of God seen in Jesus of Nazareth. Next Sunday we move into Lent with its confronting cry of whoever will follow Jesus, let them take up their cross and walk with him along the lonely road to crucifixion.
In Lent we head towards another scene on a hill when Jesus has as companions not Moses and Elijah, two eminent and revered authority figures of his nation’s religion, but two anonymous criminals. On that day when the glory of God is revealed in the cross, not dazzling light, but total darkness descends. Yet the glory of God must have also present that day for when a Roman officers sees he declares,
“Surely he is the Son of God”.