The other day I was privileged to read an account of a glorious wedding. It took place in a hospice and the bride and groom were called James and Ellie. The staff of the hospice decorated the room with fairy lights, the local florist gave flowers for free, and a local cake maker a cake for the occasion. Ellie was a young woman who was dying. She was ‘a ghost of a girl, lighter than air, using every last scrap of herself merely to stay in the room…’ Her doctor was willing her on, willing her to survive so that she could, as she so wanted to, be married before she died. The groom was all smiles, bursting with wonder that she had agreed to marry him. As the registrar spoke the timeworn words about honouring and loving a change started to come across Ellie. The strain on her face melted away. It was as though she was ‘lit from within’. She glowed and as she said ‘I will’ she was suddenly, wonderfully, luminous. She was no longer a dying young woman, but a bride – radiant, ecstatic. Everyone saw it and felt it – the world falling away until one thing remains; two young people getting married. This is what it is to be transfigured. For a moment, at least, the cancer vanished and a deeper reality was made visible. She was transfigured.
I should think that we might each be able to tell a story about such a thing from our own lives or the lives of those we love. There are moments when the dull everyday falls away and something more profound is made manifest. We see the glory that lies often just hidden behind the grey. It can happen at almost any moment in our lives and we all know that we have seen something wonderful when it happens.
Today we have heard a story from a time when Jesus was transfigured, when those who were close to him saw what he truly was. They tell us that he was transfigured before them and his face shone like the sun. The story is fascinating because of what it tells us not only about this moment but about what Jesus normally looked like. Many film makers have shown Jesus with a perpetual glow or with particularly luminous or unblinking eyes all the time, but this story suggests that it was only rarely, perhaps only once, that Jesus looked any different from the rest of us. This this difference did reveal something that was always and eternally true about him, but for most of the time he looked just as we do. He would have sweated as he walked up the mountain in the heat and longed for a drink as he reached the summit. He would have been dusty and tired from the walk. He would have felt as any of us would have done. But there were moments when it was evident that there was something glorious about him, that he was very close to God. Something shone from his face as he spoke with God. Most of the time he wasn’t transfigured – he was as we are – and life did not always glow. But there was this time when a deeper reality was made known. The poem on the order of service says something like this… I’ll read it and you can follow if you like…
For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.
A glimpse of how things really are… For me, as I suspect, for most of you, for most of the time life feels pretty ordinary. Most of my life, my faith, is lived, I have to admit, down the mountain, in the ordinary prose of life. But sometimes there may be moments for all of us when we sense that there is a deeper reality beyond the commonplace days of our lives. And sometimes, even if rarely, we glimpse that more beautiful, more enchanted, world that reveals to us something of the wonder of God and the wonderful potential and grace of human life. We see, not this darkened sky, but we see how things really are.
We all know that no-one in this world (not even Jesus!) shines all the time. For most of us life has its dull days, its prosaic ordinariness, its workaday feel. Sometimes, I know, people who are good and lovely or about whom there is some kind of remarkable serenity and peace, are described as those who ‘shine’, who exude something remarkable, warm and life-giving. We have all been privileged to know such people, and to be glad to be in their company, but we all know that even the saintliest and most gorgeous people have off days and ordinary days – even Pope Francis can be irritated by the grasping hands of the crowds that he must meet almost every day. Even he sometimes runs out patience… Transfiguration would have nothing to transfigure if it were there the whole time. Even Moses and even Jesus did not spend all their days shining with holy light. Life has to be lived with your feet on the ground, and it’s only occasionally that a kind of veil is lifted so that we can glimpse the light which shines even in the darkness.
But stories of transfiguration give us a hint, and more than a hint, that the ordinary fleshly reality of the everyday, the prosaic dullness of our ordinary days, is not the end of it or even the most truthful thing we can say about life. Sometimes, for a moment, in all our lives, it might be that the curtain is pulled back and we glimpse something of what has yet to be revealed – what you might call ‘the beyondness of things’, the glory and wonder of life, the miracle, the light. Perhaps we just couldn’t bear it all the time and it is better to live a little shaded somehow or down the mountain, for most of our days. But at any rate, this seems to be where we do live, with God often hidden from our eyes, or out of our minds for much of the time. But to know that even when we are in the mud we can look at the stars is to know that life can be more than this. We pray for the Kingdom of God to come, on earth as it is heaven, since we know that right now we live on earth but that there is a better world beyond the walls of this one.
For countless generations people have said that the shining glory of God would be too much for us to bear all the time, that God must always be a bit hidden from us, veiled in unapproachable light. But when people met Jesus, they came to believe that in his face they really and truly had seen a human being transfigured by the glory of God, that they had seen even the face of God. In the musical of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables there is a line which I think gets almost to the very heart of the Gospel, when someone sings that…
‘To love another person is to see the face of God’
Love transfigures us and in Jesus who was love embodied, the glory of God was revealed. When people had been loved by Jesus, or had heard him speak of the Kingdom, or when they saw him die for them or knew him risen again, or transfigured on a mountain, they knew that somehow they had seen the face of God, that the veil had been lifted, if only for a moment.
For most of our days, we live the ordinary lives of human beings – sleeping, rising, eating, loving, working. But sometimes there may be moments in our lives when we see that we sing to the beat of a different tune, that we are citizens of heaven. God shines a light upon us.
The story of the transfiguration is ‘as strange a scene as there is in the Gospels. Even without the voice from the cloud to explain it, those disciples had no doubt what they were witnessing. It was Jesus of Nazareth all right, the man they’d tramped many a dusty mile with, whose mother and brothers they knew, the one they’d seen as hungry, tired, footsore as the rest of them. But it was also the Messiah, the Christ, in his glory. It was the holiness of the man shining through his humanness, his face so afire with it they were almost blinded. He was transfigured.
Something like that happens once in a while in our lives too. Those people greeting loved and longed for ones at the airport barriers. The child presenting his mother with breakfast in bed. The woman exhausted but delirious with joy after a safe delivery. The man re-united with his wife after a spell in hospital. The pianist absorbed in a bravura performance. The nurse holding a hand and smiling encouragement. The child mesmerised by a first glimpse of snow. The teenager man standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in. As someone put it,
‘Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing.’ Frederick Buechner
Sometimes it might even happen as we sing a hymn or say a prayer or take on our tongue the bread and wine of communion or reach out to touch the hand of someone who wants to tell us that they will stay beside us come what may.
Jesus’ transfiguration was a rare thing, an almost one-off thing. Most of the time he looked like anyone else. But his followers believed that that day on the mountain was the truest moment, the most revealing day, the time that showed them who he really was, a lamp shining in a dark place. And for us too, could it be that those moments when we are transformed or transfigured, lit by candlelight or by joy or by love – that those moments, those rare transfigurings, actually tell us who we truly are. We are very ready to say of someone, knowing their foibles and their faults, ‘Well I know what they are really like’ as though we are most real when we are at our worst. But I believe that, in God’s sight, we are truly our most glorious, transfigured selves when we are at our best. We are not the worst of us, but the best of us. We are glorious… we are most ourselves when we shine like the sun. We are lamps shining in a dark place. This is who we really are. And this is who other people are too, even those whose glory we find it hard to see. And to live as those who believe that human beings can be transfigured is to build the world in a very different way than those who think of us first of all as fallen, filthy sinners. We can be that too for sure, but our core and most treasured identity is as those who shine with light.
I find this echoed most wonderfully not always in the church but in parts of our culture that surprise me. I have found a rap (of all things) that says this…
I feel glorious, glorious
Got a chance to start again
I was born for this, born for this
It’s who I am, how could I forget?
I made it through the darkest part of the night
And now I see the sunrise
Now I feel glorious, glorious
I feel glorious, glorious..
Turns out that a hip-hop rap song by American rapper Macklemore can reveal the Gospel – and why not? The Gospel of Matthew and the second letter to Peter sing the same song.
Archbishop, now saint, Romero once said to his people,
‘When we leave Mass,
we ought to go out
the way Moses descended Mount Sinai:
with his face shining,
with his heart brave and strong
to face the world’s difficulties..’
I would love to think that we might leave worship on a Sunday like Moses or like Jesus on the mountain, our faces shining, our hearts brave and ready to face the wonderful everyday. May it be so. Amen.