Saturday, February 17, 2007

Transfiguration

So this last week we celebrated St Valentine?s Day.  Did everybody get flowers or chocolates ? a card, at least?  I?ve often wondered how St Valentine got roped in for this particular gig ? according to one version I came across Valentine wasn?t at all romantic but he was a fair dinkum martyr who met a sticky end when the Emperor Diocletian had him shot to death with arrows ? thus giving rise to the Cupid connection which, when you really think about it, does rather make light of what must have been a fairly serious moment for St Valentine.  To add insult to injury our Anglican lectionary doesn?t even give him a special day of his own.  But it?s not such a bad memorial, is it, to have a day every year named after you when lovers the world look deeply into one another?s eyes and remember what it was in the first place that made them think their beloved is the most beautiful woman or the most handsome man in the world.

I?m reminded of a story about a king who ruled over a little tiny kingdom ? nothing much ever really happened there, no great military exploits or fabulous mineral wealth or anything very much except that the royal family had a single, lustrous diamond of monstrous size and beauty ? so world-famous was this stone that it appeared as the emblem on the country?s flag, and people came up every day to the royal palace just to marvel at it.  But then, one day, a jeweller from one of the big industrialised nations came to have a look, and after he had examined it, he sent a message to the king to say that he had discovered a crack running right through the middle.  The king got experts in from all over the world and one by one they gave their reports ? sorry, your majesty, but it?s true.  The stone was flawed beyond the possibility of repair.  Needless to say, this was devastating news for a tiny country with nothing else to boast of, and the king and all his subjects sank into a deep depression.  Nobody even had the energy to run a national competition to design a new flag, but then, nobody felt like flying the old one, either.  Until, one day, an old man came up to the royal palace claiming to be a master jeweller, and when he had had a look at the diamond, he asked to see the king.  ?Your majesty, he said, ?I can fix the stone.  In fact, I can make it more beautiful than ever?.  There seemed to be nothing much to lose, so the old man was set up in a workshop in the palace, and he went to work.  Months passed, and nobody was allowed inside the workshop, not even the king.  The whole kingdom waited with bated breath for the old man to finish his work.  And then, after six months had passed, the old man asked to see the king again.  ?Did you repair the crack??, the king wanted to know.  ?Your majesty?, said the old man, ?why would I want to do that??  And he showed him the stone.  It was more beautiful than ever, because the master craftsman had used the crack that ran through the middle as a stem, a starting point from which he had carved a rose of stunning beauty, the petals seeming to open as you turned the diamond this way and that to catch the light, the thorns of the rose gleaming on the edges of the stone.  The diamond that was irredeemably flawed had been transformed in a way that a perfect stone could never have been.

It?s like that, I suspect, with love.  The transformation that human beings undergo when we are loved, and when we love in return, has got something to do with a new way of seeing, the gift that lovers have of revealing the beauty in one another that lies at a deeper and a truer level than the all the cracks and chips acquired along the way.

But of course we need to talk about the Transfiguration.

Isn?t this a mysterious story?  Jesus takes the three disciples that seem to form a sort of inner circle, and he takes them up a mountain where they see him transfigured, shining from within with the light of heaven, chatting to the two all-time greats, Moses and Elijah who, so the legends went, never actually died but got sort of beamed up to heaven.  What are we supposed to make of this? 

I read the other day that the Transfiguration is like a science fiction story where time and space get distorted - for a start, the disciples? vision of Jesus is more typical of his appearances after the resurrection, so it is a sort of advance viewing, a foretaste of what?s ahead not only for Jesus but for all of us.  The future, in other words, has for a few brief moments coincided with the present.  And at the same time it?s a vision of the divine world ? heaven, in other words, which the story seems to assume is geographically up there somewhere ? heaven colliding for a few brief moments with earth, with Elijah and Moses there as witnesses by way of a sort of unnecessary guarantee of Jesus? credentials as the one in whom all time and all space are experienced simultaneously.  For good, God-fearing Jews who know their Bible this is a sort of symbolic code, a shiny Jesus up on the mountain-top for example puts them in mind of a shiny-faced Moses coming down with the tablets of the Law in the Book of Exodus, and then they would think of Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy predicting that another prophet as great as himself would arise, and commanding the people, ?when he does, listen to him?.  For the disciples, of course, it?s all part of the growing realisation of who Jesus actually is, and we get this sense not so much of Jesus being in any way changed but the disciples, for a few brief moments, getting just a glimpse of Jesus as he actually is, just for a few moments seeing the true beauty and the light of God shining through him.

And so the first thing I to do with this is to draw the connection between the transfiguration of Jesus and the transformation of disciples who need to learn a new way of seeing.  The disciples who ? just for a moment ? see in Jesus the whole of time and space ? are able to do so only because they themselves are being transformed, their eyes are being opened so just for a moment they see the world not through the human lens of desire and need but through the divine lens of grace.  That?s the first thing, that the transfiguration of Jesus shows us the transformation of beauty that lovers already know and disciples need sometimes to be reminded of.  The Celtic peoples have an expression for this experience of the divine world poking through the fabric of the everyday, they call it ?thin time?, and the transfiguration reminds us that as disciples ? some of the time up there in the rarefied atmosphere of prayer and spirituality but most of the time on the level ground of work and family relationships ? as disciples we are in the business of thin time, the business of learning to see the world we live in through the eyes of God.  All we need to do is to be attentive. 

So that?s the first thing.  The second thing is this, when we do have the ?ah-hah!? experience, when we have the unexpected epiphanies of God that are part and parcel of discipleship, what are we supposed to do about it?  Peter, who the gospel writer lovingly assures us doesn?t have a clue what?s going on, babbles something about building a row of huts.  It seems there?s something symbolic in this from Luke?s point of view, perhaps something to connect this mountain-top experience with the desert experience that the people of Israel celebrated in the Feast of Tabernacles.  We probably don?t need to delve to deeply into that, but the point remains, when we do catch a glimpse of the undiluted beauty of God we need to do something.  We need to celebrate it somehow.  And the all too human reaction to catching sight of something as wild and unrestrained - as un-pin-down-able as the beauty of God - what human beings generally want to do with that is to pin it down, to catch it in a cage of words, make a doctrine out of it or put up a whopping great building.  The church, of course, is very good at buildings, maybe too good at mistaking the brilliance of God for the edifice, too good at putting up buildings to try to keep the experience of God inside, and the rest of the world out.  We need to resist our tendency to build places to retreat into, because the first thing that Jesus does is to gently lead his disciples back the way they came, straight back down the hill to the everyday world which is where, when you think about it, it most matters that the beauty of God is made visible. 

All you need to do is to be attentive.  Be attentive, and be in love.  Learn to look at the everyday, imperfect world with the eyes of God, and you will be transformed into the beauty of God.  Learn to see the beauty of God in the world you live in, and you will grow in love.

Amen.

 


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