Some years ago, I went round a gallery at which there was an exhibition of modern art depicting the human face. What I saw was a very varied selection of paintings – some of the ‘faces’ so deconstructed as to be only just recognisably human – yet there was always something even in the most tortured which could instantly be seen as a face and conveying a story. You can learn a very great deal from looking at someone’s face.
Which is one of the reasons why the account of our Lord’s Transfiguration is such a powerful story. Here we discover how in the midst of a time apart for prayer with the three specially intimate disciples, Peter James and John, Jesus’ face was suddenly changed. It became, we are told, like the light and his clothing whiter than any earthly washing powder could achieve, as one of the other Gospel writers is keen to add. The disciples greet this event with their usual mixture of misunderstanding (Peter is keen to perpetuate the occasion and formalise it), fear and awe. But one thing is clear – there was a message here and it was written all over Jesus’ face.
Biblical scholars have often suggested that this episode was really a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus which has somehow been interpolated into the Gospel account at this point as an encouragement to the disciples as they move towards the events which would culminate in Jesus’ passion and death. If it was supposed to give such encouragement, then it singularly failed, since at the critical time most of them ran away. But that is not really important. The significance of the event of Christ’s transfiguration is not whether it provided encouragement for the disciples. It is about the way in which grace transforms human nature. It is about a glimpse of glory seen in a human face lit up by God, although in the case of Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, this glimpse of glory carries a much deeper significance for us. Of which we are reminded by the voice from the cloud of divine presence, This is my Son the Beloved: listen to him.
As Christians, we are very much into the business of transfiguration. Through grace, our lives individually are to be transfigured as we grow into the pattern of filial life shown to us in Jesus. And we are at the same time concerned with that transfiguration of the whole of society which we describe as the ‘Kingdom of God’ – the transfiguration of all that is which will come about as God’s sovereign reign is recognised. As we thought last week, that means a creation shaped by the Word of God made flesh in Jesus – and within it our lives shaped by grace to be with Jesus sons and daughters of God. For the present the recognition of this calling to live under God’s reign is partial and incomplete – all too partial and incomplete – but we discover glimpses of it, both in the life of the church and in the life of the world – which like the glimpse of glory which was granted to the disciples in the face of Jesus, grants us at least a momentary consolation if, like them, we still fail at the greater moments of trial.
Our lives are to be transfigured by grace – made transparent to God’s glory. But how do we imagine that glory? What kind of transfiguration is it to be?
This is an important question for us because the way in which we answer it reveals a lot about the way in which we envisage God and his activity with us and his world.
What kind of glory is God’s glory?
The disciples were afraid when it dawned fully upon them the reality of this event – when they realised that it was a manifestation of God’s glory. And they were afraid because they felt that being witnesses to such an event would most certainly spell death for them. After all, they saw God as the all-holy, the awesome and terrifying one. He was omnipotent and omniscient – all-powerful and all-seeing. The glory of such a being would indeed strike us with terror.
Yet I wonder if still in many of us is such a vision of God? When we think of God’s glory, of what do we imagine? Is it a picture of his power, or of his awesome majesty? If it is, then it is very difficult for us to imagine ourselves being in some way or other transparent to that kind of glory? Or perhaps in some ways it is all too easy! For do we not sometimes want our religion to shield us from just those kinds of things from which we are sure God would not suffer? We wish to be strong. We should like to be wise. We should like our religion to protect us from the uncertainties, difficulties and sufferings of this life. But it’s not like that. And the kind of glory we see in the transfigured face of Jesus on Mount Thabor is a much more ‘fragile’ kind of glory. It is less the glory which we might associate with that of an all-powerful, all-seeing Being and much more the kind of glory that we could otherwise describe as suffering love.
This is what – as Christians – we mean when we speak of God’s glory. It is the glory of self-giving, self-offering love. The voice that the disciples hear on the mountain top is not the voice of the all-powerful, all-seeing Being. It is the voice of the loving Father. The kind of love which is totally directed towards the object of its care. Jesus, his beloved Son, and in him, the whole of created life.
Here, then, is the kind of glory which is to transfigure our lives – the glory of God’s love. This glory, this grace is ever concerned with the flourishing and well-being of all that is. And it is this glory which will – if we let it – transfigure our own lives and the life of the world around us.
Which brings us back to the faces with which we started off – the faces in the art gallery. Some of them were greatly deconstructed – only just recognisably human. At our baptism, we suffer a kind of spiritual deconstruction. Or to put it another way, we are re-made. We die with Christ to the old life centred on self and are raised up with him to the new life of glory, of the resurrection. Just as at Christ’s own baptism in the Jordan, the Father says to each and every one of us individually, this is my son, this is my daughter, called to be glorious. In principle, Baptism gives us that new life once and for all. In principle, our lives are at that moment immersed in and shot through with glory. But it takes us the rest of our lives to grow into that glory. Which is why at Baptism, infants used to be clothed (and sometimes still are) in a huge floppy robe as a sign of this new life of grace into which they were then to grow during the rest of their time on earth.
During that period of spiritual growth, we shall all find ourselves somewhat deconstructed. There are times when – in the process of growing into what we are in Christ to become – we shall appear a very long way short. Much less than the fully glorious humans we are called to be. Fortunately for us, within the life of the Church we have a home which is a space where we can comfortably be just that – less than the full humanity to which we are called, but on the way with our fellow pilgrims towards it. And we are given one another to help us make that full humanity real.
Each year there are extra opportunities for us to help us in this growth process. One such is Lent. The whole purpose of Lent, in fact, is to help us live out our baptism more effectively. At the end of Lent we renew our baptism vows and all of the spiritual exercises which we undergo during this season are to help us make that renewal more effectively.
Or in other words, Lent is about the Transfiguration of our lives by grace. Which is one reason why we shouldn’t see Lent as a time to be endured, a miserable imposition in the middle of the Church’s Year. Rather, it is a time of quiet joy as we focus our attention once again (for it is very easy for that gaze and attention to slip) as we focus our attention again upon God and his call to us. The call expressed in our baptism: to die with Christ to the old life and to be raised up to new life in and with him. So it is good on this, the Sunday before Lent begins, to be reminded of the wonderful vocation which is ours – to be transfigured with Christ, and with him to bring that transfiguration to God’s world in all that we are and seek to be – sons and daughters with Christ the Son of God made flesh.
During Lent this year, the Church of England has produced an App for your smart phones which is free and follows the official Lent Course, Dust and Glory. It contains a short reflection for every day during Lent starting from this coming (Ash) Wednesday. The course is focussed around the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book called Failure. I have read this book and will incorporate some of its themes in the Sunday sermons through Lent which I hope will be of help during this coming holy season.