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Thursday, 6 August 2015

The Transfiguration: From mystery into mystery

Here is the reflection from this evening's Choral Evensong for the Feast of the Transfiguration at St Stephen Walbrook:

The Transfiguration (Mark 9. 2 - 8) ‘is a vivid portrayal of the mystery of Jesus’ being with us, with the law and the prophets, and with God, all at the same time, and an invitation for us to enter that mystery.’ Through the responses of the disciples, it ‘demonstrates how much we resist doing so, and how Jesus finds a way to be with us regardless.’ (Sam Wells, A Nazareth Manifesto)

The great modern religious artist Albert Herbert viewed ‘Bible stories … as symbols, metaphors, revealing the ‘marvellous’.’ He said that his ‘painting of Moses climbing the mountain and speaking to God in a cloud, is about the incomprehensible; God is beyond understanding, it is the revelation coming from outside the tangible world of the senses. It cannot be put better than in this Biblical image of something hidden from you by a cloud; and you going upwards with great difficulty, away from the ordinary world, and looking for something hidden from you.’

The Transfiguration is about this same sense of being taken out of our routine lives and routine experience in order that we experience something more, something beyond, something outside our current experience which is transforming and transfiguring without being fully explicable. If it is real our encounter with God must ultimately be an encounter with mystery because God is someone other, someone more than, someone beyond and outside of human comprehension and reasoning. God reveals himself through Jesus, in ways that we can see and know and understand, but, ultimately, remains someone who is more than we can fully see and know and understand.

The Transfiguration was, therefore, the disciples (and, through them, ourselves) encountering the mystery of God. We call such experiences, ‘mountain-top experiences’. We are all likely to have had them at some point in our lives. Moments when something we encounter takes our breath away and we are taken out of ourselves and become specially aware of the wonder of the world, of existence or, directly, of God. They can be times of great blessing and revelation when all seems well with the world and when we know without any uncertainty that we are God’s children. Our mountain-top experience might be a great worship service, an experience of healing, answered prayer or the gifts of the Holy Spirit, or a sense of overwhelming joy or of union with every other living thing in the whole created order but, equally, cannot be restricted just to those moments.

We can go with the flow in such moments and open ourselves to experience something beyond our understanding and experience or we can respond, like the disciples, with some fear and trepidation at this disruption of our usual experience and make attempts, as Peter did in proposing tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, to get this disturbing experience back inside the limits of our control and understanding.

Whatever it is and however wonderful it is, we will inevitably, as Jesus, did come down from the mountain-top to experience suffering or in our case failure. We cannot live on the mountain-tops but those experience sustain us when we are in the valleys. Such experiences are one of the means God uses to go with us through the valleys, even the valley of the shadow of death.

Mountain-top experiences are surprises which we cannot look for or manufacture. They are gifts for us to experience, appreciate and enjoy. The singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn sums up the attitude we need when he sings:

‘There you go
Swimming deeper into mystery
Here I remain
Only seeing where you used to be
Stared at the ceiling
'Til my ears filled up with tears
Never got to know you
Suddenly you're out of here

Gone from mystery into mystery
Gone from daylight into night
Another step deeper into darkness
Closer to the light

To genuinely encounter God as he is, we cannot constrain or control him but have to accept that he is beyond our understanding, more than we can fully grasp, comprehend or reason. When we are open in this way, we can go swimming deeper into mystery, we can go from mystery to mystery, from daylight into night, another step deeper into darkness, closer to the light. This is the invitation and welcome extended to us through the Transfiguration.


Bruce Cockburn - Closer To The Light.

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