Readings: 2 Peter 1:16-end, Matthew 17:1-9
Today we heard the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus before his three chosen disciples on the mountain, wherever it was. If you go to the Holy Land on Pilgrimage, it depends who you are going with as to where you are taken. That’s obvious. A Zionist pilgrimage will take you to Zionist sites. A Living Stones Pilgrimage hosted by Arab Christians would take you to other sites. If you go on a pilgrimage organised by a western church, you will go to Mount Tabor in Galilee which is the site traditionally associated with the Transfiguration from the western tradition. If you go on a pilgrimage to Orthodox sites, you would go generally go to the Monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai, as there is a traditional association of the Transfiguration with that monastery. In the apse of the Monastery church, there is a stunning fifth century Mosaic of the Transfiguration. This is in addition to the site associated with Moses and the Tablets of the Law and the Burning Bush- so there are lots of images, and whatever feeds you is that which you will latch on to. So I want to talk about two aspects of what we might glean from this story of the Transfiguration, and how it might be speaking to us today. The two aspects are these – experience transfigured and experience transformed.
First of all, Experience Transfigured. At its bottom, this is what religious experience will do for us. I am interested in the work of the existentialist philosopher Paul Ricoeur, who writes about the role of memory in identity. This is basic to community cohesion, and is part of the reason why contemporary British society is in trouble, as it has no memory. A society without memory is one which is easily manipulated, as it has no historic truth claims on which it can rely. Partly for that reason, we see the growth of the manifestation of certain forms of state control of every aspect of life. British society is already one of the most surveillance societies in the world. In the past 10 years, over 2,600 new laws have been passed, affecting every area of life. The Christian tradition forms part of our communal history and communal memory. Governmental talk about British values has what an Orthodox observer has called " societal Alzheimers" as it speaks about these values as though they came from nowhere and have no background in history. And when the teaching of history in many schools has all but ceased, then we move into dangerous territory. Cardinal Vincent Nicholls has pointed out that it takes simply a few hours for a young person to be radicalised through the internet as they are, to use the chilling phrase of Islamist internet groomers, " clean skins" . There is no background to help shape and form. Ricoeur points out that with memory, individuals find their rightful place in society, and society finds a secure identity, without some of the more neurotic forms of state control. In the end, a state can control many things including when you should die if you are no longer economically productive. But the state cannot control memory. Identity and memory are, for Ricoeur, at the heart of human experience.
Take religious experience, for example. We may assume that in all churches and faith groups, there are people who have had at some stage a religious experience. There may be people in churches who have religious experiences all the time. Some of them are even clergy, although that may be rarer. This experience of being taken out of oneself and onto another level of understanding and experience is what religious faith should be able to offer. If it cannot do this, then something is wrong. This is why how we prepare for worship, how we carry it out, what we invest into it, and so on, is of great importance. All the preparation, all the thought and care, which goes into good liturgy, is to enable the experience to speak for itself, and to take the worshipper beyond him or herself. On the other hand, if you arrived at this or any other church and found the priest fumbling about saying what do I do next, or should we sing something at this point, or any other form of being not quite together, what you would be left with is an experience of that individual, and not of the message. In other words, the postman had become the message. All good liturgy is designed to allow the postman to be that – simply the delivery mechanism that allows the worshipper to enter the realm of the numinous- to be aware of being connected to the greater whole. This, in some senses, is transfiguration – where we are literally shown a different shape. And it is this, which defines a worshipping community – being shown the different shape and possibilities of life in God. This is experience transfigured.
Now experience transformed. What is interesting and important in the account of the Transfiguration in the Gospel of Matthew is what comes next. The disciples want to stay in the experience they had had but Jesus insists on going immediately down the mountain. And what does he find there? Screaming human need as expressed through demonic sickness. There is a purpose to this. We can only deal with the daily realities with which we live because of the experience of transfiguration which tells us that there is another perspective, another experience. If there were not, it would be too awful to communicate. This gives us the perspective we need to enter effectively into the fray of life, with all the outrageous slings and arrows it throws at us most of the time. This time of economic and political instability ought, if anything, to underline this for us as people of faith. The reality of mortgages, debt, pressure, depression, exhaustion, burn out, fake news, false news, and post-truth politics or any of the things that we deal with on a daily basis would be totally overwhelming without this. Add to this the global pressure of what we see daily – global warming, cold conflict, hot conflict, poverty death and disease, and we have no idea where to turn. A dramatic calendar example of this is the Feast of the Transfiguration, which falls on August 6th. This is also Hiroshima Day, when the world commemorates that extreme of human sickness and violence in nuclear obliteration. Transfiguration holds the key to understanding this. Sickness, evil transformed by the transfiguring light of the experience of Jesus Christ on the mountain. This can also be our experience, which is one of the reasons why we offer anointing with oil and the laying on of hands today as we prepare for Lent.
This Wednesday we enter the solemn season of Lent in the Gregorian calendar. This year the Gregorian and the Julian Easters are the same – April 16th. The traditional focus of this season in the lives of the baptised household of faith is threefold – almsgiving, fasting, and prayer. This year, we are offering opportunities for all of those things together in the community of this Church. Do use them. They are not exercises in spiritual navel gazing, but a real way of being aware of the transfiguring power of the faith in transforming all our experiences. It’s also an opportunity to take a sober look at something we often overlook – myself. So give yourself some time this Lent. Look after yourself. Discover some of the traditional wisdom of the church in addressing the human condition in the light of faith. Do not despise the discipline of fasting. I am told it was fashionable in the 1960’s and onwards to say, “ Lent isn’t about giving things up.” Well, I’m not sure where that came from but it wasn’t from traditional Christian wisdom. My fast might be from food, or it might be from the verbal putdown ready on the tongue. Both address the central reality that as a person I can be transfigured, and in that transfiguration, I am open to the possibility that all experience can be transformed. If we don’t see the need to give things up in ourselves, and fasting from some of the nastier bits of our character, then we don’t really have a starting point.
So come and join other brothers and sisters in the faith as we begin Lent together on Wednesday. Think about using the resources of reading. The Lent Study is on how Christians relate to people of other faiths – one of the pressing realities of our time. The Diocesan project to which we will be giving is supporting schools in Mozambique and Angola. All of this helps to connect us with a greater reality than ourselves, which is really the experience of transformation, which the Christian faith holds open to every believer. Peter reminds his hearers of that when he says that men and women, “moved by the Holy Spirit” will be open to transform the world. A world transfigured. A world transformed. Can we do it? Yes, we can!