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Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Transfiguration: A glimpse of glory

Last night our Evensong for the Feast of the Transfiguration followed by a Garden Party drew a congregation of 125 to St Stephen Walbrook. The setting used by the Choir of St Stephen Walbrook was Hebert Howells in G and the anthem was Edgar Bainton's And I Saw A New Heaven. In my reflection for this service I said the following:
The dictionary definition of transfiguration is: a change in form or appearance or an exalting, glorifying, or spiritual change. Those aspects of transfiguration can be seen in our Gospel reading, but the story defines the word best.

Sam Wells, the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, puts it like this:

“There’s glory – the glory of the Lord in the face of Jesus Christ. There’s the pattern of God’s story in Israel and the church, a story that finds its most poignant moments in the midst of suffering and exile. There’s the loving, tender, presence and heavenly voice of God the Father – a voice that for the only time in their lives, the disciples hear and understand. And there’s the extraordinary realisation that, even though all this could have gone on without them, the disciples have been caught up in the life of the Trinity, the mystery of salvation, the unfolding of God’s heart, the beauty of holiness.”

The way he describes it, transfiguration involves the glory of seeing a person or event in the bigger story of God’s loving purposes for the world. Up until this point, “the disciples know Jesus does plenty of amazing and wonderful things and says many beautiful and true things, but they still assume he’s basically the same as them.” It’s only as they go up the mountain with him that the veil slips and they’re invited in to a whole other world. A world in which “Jesus is completely at home,” “even when the Father’s voice thunders from above.” “And more remarkably still, it seems there’s a place for them in it, hanging out with the likes of Moses and Elijah. They’ve been given a glimpse of glory. It’s a glory that’s faithful to the story of Israel, a glory that has Jesus at the centre of it, a glory that has God speaking words of love, a glory that has a place for them in it, however stumbling and clumsy they are, and finally a glory in which Jesus touches them tenderly in their fear.“

Sam Wells suggests that this experience, this glimpse of glory, can shape the way we pray by giving our prayers the same extra dimension. In fact, he details three different ways to pray. The first involves Resurrection. “Resurrection prayer is a prayer calling for a miracle. It is prayer of faithful risk. We look to the heavens with tightened fist and say, ‘Sweet Jesus, if you’re alive, make your presence known!’” 

The second way to pray is Incarnation. This is “a prayer of presence. It is, perhaps, more silent than a prayer of Resurrection. It is a prayer which recognizes that, yes, Jesus was raised, but that it happened through brokenness. Through Christ, God shares our pain and our frailty. So we pray acknowledging that God suffers with us.”

The third way to pray is Transfiguration. Sam writes, “God, in your son’s transfiguration we see a whole reality within and beneath and beyond what we thought we understood; in … times of bewilderment and confusion, show … father your glory, that [we] may find a deeper truth to … life than [we] ever knew, make firmer friends than [we] ever had, discover reasons for living beyond what [we’d] ever imagined, and be folded into your grace like never before.” “In other words, it is a prayer that, in whatever circumstance, asks God to reshape our reality, to give us a new and right spirit to trust that even in the midst of suffering and hardship, truth can still be experienced and shared.”

“On the mountain, the disciples discovered that Christ was part of a conversation with Israel and God and was dwelling in glory in a way that they had no idea of and could hardly grasp and yet it put everything on a different plane.” 

As a result, the prayer of Transfiguration is a different kind of a prayer. “The prayer of resurrection has a certain defiance about it – in the face of what seem to be all the known facts, it calls on God to produce the goods and turn the situation round. It has courage and hope but there’s always that fear that it has a bit of fantasy as well. The prayer of incarnation is honest and unflinching about the present and the future, but you could say it’s a little too much swathed in tragedy … it’s so concerned to face … reality … that there’s always that fear that it’s never going to discover the glory of what lies above.”

The prayer of Transfiguration is different. “Not so much, ‘Fix this and take it off my desk!’ Nor even, ‘Be with me and share in my struggle, now and always.’ But something more like, ‘Make this trial and tragedy, this problem and pain, a glimpse of your glory, a window into your world, when I can see your face, sense the mystery in all things, and walk with angels and saints. Bring me closer to you in this crisis than I ever have been in calmer times. Make this a moment of truth, and when I cower in fear and feel alone, touch me, raise me, and make me alive like never before.’”

Maybe you would like to make the prayer of transfiguration your prayer for yourself at this time, “in the midst of whatever it is you’re wrestling with today.”


Edgar Bainton - And I Saw A New Heaven

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