For Reflection: this week Benjamin reflects on the story of the Transfiguration
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
In the South Quire Aisle of Durham Cathedral is the “Transfiguration” window. Commissioned by the Friends of Durham Cathedral and installed in 2010 it is a glorious evocation of the story of the Transfiguration which we heard in today’s New Testament Reading. Created by Tom Denny – one of the finest, if not the finest stained-glass artists in contemporary Britain – it uses a palate of whites, golds and burnished bronze to imagine the vivid brilliance of the that moment when, as we heard in our reading:
Jesus was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.
The window was commissioned in honour of Michael Ramsey who had been a Canon of Durham Cathedral and later Bishop of Durham before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury. The theme of the window draws on the central role that the Transfiguration played in Ramsey’s understanding of the Gospel and Faith and his insights into the Transfiguration continue to guide us as we encounter again this wonderful and bewildering story.
The story of the Transfiguraiton is often seen by scholars as a tricky one to categorise. Its telling is, in many ways, a straightforward. Jesus retreating from his ministry takes his inner circle of disciples – Peter, James and John – to high mountain. There Jesus is transfigured before them. Visions of Moses and Elijah appear around Jesus and a voice from heaven declaring Jesus to be the Son of God. Then, as quickly as it came, the brilliance of this moment evaporates, and the stunned disciples are left not knowing what to do or what to think. In their shock Jesus tells them not to say anything of this experience until after “the Son of Man had risen from the Dead”.
What are we to make of this story then?
Well one is to place it into a larger narrative. This is clearly what the compilers of our lectionaries think. Each year we hear this story on the last Sunday before Lent as a prelude to our Lenten journey. In this way it acts a little like the overture to an Opera of Musical, showing us, as we stand at the foot of the mountain of our Lenten journey, a glimpse of the brilliance and glory that lies at the end of this journey.
Another approach is to try and smooth it into a more logical form. I remember at Theological College being told by a tutor that the Transfiguration was really a resurrection appearance pulled back into the story by the Gospel writers to provide a taster of what is to come after. The implications being that the story of the Transfiguration is placed in our Gospels not for what it is or was, but for what it does to reinforce the bigger story.
Michael Ramsey in his reflections on the Transfiguration pulled against this tendency to try to make this complicated and challenging story make sense by neatening it out into a shape and structure that makes sense for us. For Ramsey the key to the Transfiguration, the key to faith, was that it belies neatness and logic.
It is clear the whatever we make of the Transfiguration it is intended as a glimpse of the truth of who Jesus is. Jesus is the great both/and. He is both the friend who walks up the mountain with his friends, and the figure in brilliant white who Moses and Elijah come to in homage.
In this way we don’t make sense of the Transfiguration by trying to place it neatly into a bigger story. We make sense of the Transfiguration by recognising the brilliance of the future it points us towards bursting unexpectedly and unwarranted into the supposed neatness and order of our present.
The Transfiguration is then a glimpse of what might be possible. But it is not a truth that happens inevitably through human progress. It is a truth that we discover when we allow God to break into our lives. When we catch those glimpses of God’s love and allow ourselves to be transformed by it. As Ramsey says:
[The] gospel of Transfiguration… transcends the world and yet speaks directly to the immediate here-and-now. He who is transfigured is the Son of Man; and as he discloses on the holy mountain another world, he reveals that no part of created things, and no moment of created time lies outside the power of the Spirit, who is Lord, to change it from glory to glory.
This might seem like a complex idea, but it is a truth we know and experience.
We have been told that the world should progress in some sort of sensible order. That things should get better year and year, that we should get better off year on year. But the reality is that the truths that really define us, that make sense of who we are don’t come through the steady movement of progress – if that even exists. The things that define us come out of the blue.
How many of us who have fallen in love did so because of a well-ordered plan, and how many of us fell in love like a bolt out of the blue?
How many of us with children thought we could plan and order and structure this in a neat way, only to find that in the chaos and mess of parenthood we found a joy we could not have planned for or imagined?
How many of us looking back to when we last heard this story in worship, sitting comfortably in our pews in Church a year ago, could have known what was lying ahead of us?
How many of us, looking back on our lives, can see a neat and ordered progression, and how many of us recognise that those things that really define who we are came, whether in moments of wonder and glory or pain and suffering, as bolts out of the blue.
What Michael Ramsey reminds us is that life is not neat or ordered. It is messy and untidy and into that messiness God is constantly breaking in even when it seems that the chaos and darkness have overcome us. As Ramsey says of the darkest experiences of suffering:
it can make all the difference to look towards the cross of Jesus Christ. From there the power of transfiguring comes. And it helps to know that in the suffering of Jesus God himself is there... If we are near to Jesus we are helped to realise that the world-to-come is near, we can know that the perspective of heaven about which Jesus spoke to the dying thief is near.
As we stand on the cusp of Lent we are rightly guided and inspired by the vision of the Transfiguration as we begin this journey again. But this should not mean that we miss the deeper truth of the Transfiguration.
And here we might return to that window at Durham Cathedral. Into that window Denny has woven images from the bible, the history of Durham, and the figures of ordinary people looking on. Amongst them is balding and slightly stooping figure we imagine to be Ramsey looking up at the vision on the mountain. In this helter-skelter of images we are encouraged to recognise that through all the complex and rich textures of our life and history, God’s transfigured glory shines through.
That God in Jesus is constantly breaking into our lives, transforming and transfiguring them by showing us, even in the darkest of places and often in the most unexpected ways, the vision of his glory.
Questions for reflection
- Can you think of an experience that came to you like a bolt out of the blue?
- What did that feel like?
- How might we open ourselves to God working in our live in this way?