Homily for The Transfiguration 2010

In Uncategorized on August 8, 2010 at 11:34 am

A mountain.
Bright light.
A cloud.
The voice from heaven.
A good dramatic story, that, the Transfiguration.

Reminds us of another Bible story perhaps,
of Moses on the mountain,  receiving the Ten Commandments.
Remember his face shone?

And perhaps, almost, reminiscent of a rather different, 20th Century story.
On the Feast of the Transfiguration in 1945,
the Enola Gay flew beyond Mount Fuji, symbolic in so much Japanese art,
and Hiroshima became forever infamous,
as the place where a bright light, “no ordinary sun”,
a distinctive mushroom cloud,
and after the thunder, God alone knows what voice from heaven,
spoke volumes about fallen humanity.

Apparently the Japanese character used for “transfigure”
is the same as that for “disfigure”.
And there’s a sense today that we have to combine the glory of the mountain top
with the depths of our inhumanity,
the Transfiguration of Jesus as the Christ, the image of the invisible God,
with our disfiguring of that same image.

Today is kept as Peace Sunday, and we commit ourselves as Christ’s disciples
to follow the Prince of Peace.

Jesus climbs a mountain with his closest disciples. There is a dazzling light,
they see Moses – the Lawgiver – and Elijah – greatest of the prophets.
A cloud that overshadows them, and they are terrified by the cloud, and a voice.

And in the middle of all this Peter wants to build tents, booths, dwellings.
Which we interpret as a misguided attempt
to hang on to this extraordinary experience.
To freeze the moment of revelation and encounter with God…
but we know we can’t live on the Mountain.

Though perhaps it’s also a reference to the Jewish Festival of Booths.
The harvest celebration of God’s abundance,
re-enacting the wandering in the Wilderness by building huts…
A Festival that used the images of light, cloud, and “the turning of the year”
as an expression of expectation and the end of Exile.
This is a pivotal moment in those disciples’ experience of Jesus.
So, whether this was at the same time as the Festival or not,
Peter naturally seizes on an image that helps him understand what’s going on.

And we have that rather 1950s advertising image
of Jesus’ clothes and face becoming dazzling white.
Not the cue for a laundry powder commercial,
but an expression of the Shekhinah, the Presence of God.
We are told that when Moses spoke with God, his face shone.
Jesus is in the Transfiguration revealed to be the expression of God’s Shekhinah,
God’s Presence, and his whole body and being shines.

And, flanked by those representative figures of Moses and Elijah,
Jesus speaks of what Luke calls
“his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem”.
Which brings God’s glory starkly into focus with the Cross.
And so we have the beginnings of Transfiguration in a wholly different way,
where the darkest depths are transformed,
not just the mountaintop moment.

Transfiguration and disfiguration.
It is through Christ’s disfiguration on the cross
that God’s glory is revealed.
Not only is suffering the means of reconciliation,
but the transfiguring of suffering itself is attested.

These are the words of an English Priest,
whose father, Leonard Wilson, was Bishop of Singapore during World War II.
A Prisoner of War, removed from his interment camp for months
and tortured by the Japanese on suspicion of being a spy.

He survived, and after the war returned to Singapore
and had the great joy of confirming one of his torturers.
“One of those who had stood with a rope in his hand,
threatening and sadistic.” he said.
“I have seldom seen so great a change in a man. He looked gentle and peaceful.
His face was completely changed by the power of Christ.”

Michael Ramsey, one-time Archbishop of Canterbury wrote:
“Transfiguration is indeed a central theme of Christianity,
the transforming of suffering and circumstances,
of men and women with the vision of Christ before them
and the Holy Spirit within them.”

We are called,
as we reflect on the disfiguring pain of Hiroshima and Ngasaki,
as we hold in prayer all the violence and waste of conflicts the world over
– and especially this day that in the Congo –  we are called
to hold before ourselves and our world the possibility of Transfiguration.
The mountaintop offers us a glimpse of God.  Our Lord in glory.
But the Cross changes what that means.

Transfiguration glimpsed and maybe understood through disfiguration.

Reformed theologian Karl Barth wrote:
“Our tribulation without ceasing to be tribulation is transformed.
We suffer as we suffered before,
but our suffering is no longer a passive perplexity
but is transformed into a pain which is creative,
fruitful, full of power and promise.
The road which is impassable has been made known to us
in the crucified and risen Lord.”


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