26 February 2017
I want to begin with something most of you will not have heard before. It is from “ Alice through the Looking Glass”.
The White Queen and Alice are having a conversation. The White Queen says to Alice : “Let’s consider your age to begin with. How old are you?”.
“I’m seven and a half exactly”, replied Alice .
“You needn’t say exactly”, the Queen remarked. “I can believe it without that. Now I’ll give you something to believe. I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day”.
“I can’t believe that“, said Alice .
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a piteous tone. “Try again, draw a long breath and shut your eyes”.
Alice laughed. “ There’s no use trying”, she said. “One can’t believe in impossible things”.
“I dare say you haven’t much practice”, said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’d believe as many as six impossible things before Breakfast”.
This morning we have two, not six, seemingly impossible things to believe before we have our breakfast but, before we attempt this, we may need more than a deep breath and closing our eyes. We need also to realise that the experience of belief is not the same as understanding all this belief leads to.
For example, we may believe that we love someone but it will take years to understand what loving that person means. It could take a lifetime. This is the most assuredly true when we consider belief in God but understanding all that this belief entails may take many years of exploration. It is as if one has put one step on to a ladder but not yet realising the staircase that lies ahead. Perhaps complete understanding only comes when we meet God face to face and know God as he knows us.
The first seemingly impossible thing presented to us is the experience of Peter, James and John on that mountain, which we heard about in today’s Gospel. Suddenly there is this blinding light radiating from Jesus, a symbol of his Divinity. This friend Jesus, with whom they had talked and walked and shared meals with – he who is a friend is now brimming with his Divineness. Yet it is still the Jesus they can see up there in the middle of all this splendour and Reverence. The Gospel says that they were simply terrified. Peter points to the vision and mutters something about three Tents although, really, “He did not know what to say”.
We learn that the figures of Moses and Elijah are seen talking with Jesus. The y are speaking about the coming Passion, death and Resurrection which were to happen to Jesus. This shows that was all part of the Law and Prophecy. If the disciples knew this, it would make them more frightened. Whenever Jesus mentioned this before, they would not hear of it. It did not fit their idea of Jesus.
If the purpose of the vision was to assure them it was all in God’s hands. The end was the smothering Glory now enveloping them – if that was to comfort them, it did not work. The y simply could not get it! The y did not understand until He stood with his wounds, alive in the Upper Room and when he broke the bread at Emmaus.
We now come to the second seemingly impossible thing to believe before our breakfast. Most of us in the Western part of Christendom have limited our ideas of the Transfiguration to the person of Jesus on his own. What is largely overlooked in our part of the Church is that this Revelation is about our Transfiguration too; it is about what happens to you and to me. The destiny of Jesus is OURS too.
The foundation message for us is that at the birth of Jesus the whole of creation was directly renewed. Christ assumes our humanity and we were given the gift (grace) to become part of the Divinity. It seems that we have been ignoring this amazing gift, the picture we have for us of Heaven, through Medieval times until now. Is Heaven the reward for being good while on this planet? The foundation meaning for the universal Church is that Heaven is the ultimate destiny of humanity. The glory of the Transfiguration of Jesus is to be shared with you and me. It is not merited but a free gift, which we can only lose by refusing to accept and turning away from God.
It has to be said that the other picture of Heaven as a reward for good behaviour means the Gospel account of the Penitent thief makes no sense at all.
The re are two facts which support the mystery of our being given a gift as part of the Divinity. In the Eucharist, at the offertory, the Priest holds an empty chalice. Into it he pours wine. The n he is given water, to pour a little of it into the wine. As he does he says this prayer:
“O God, who so wondrously created the dignity of human nature and did still more wondrously restore it, grant that by the mystery of this water and wine, we may be made partakers of your Divinity, who in our humanity humbly deign to dwell, even Jesus Christ our Lord”. Julian of Norwich described this as being KNIT together in God.
In 2015, as part of a continuous meeting of Orthodox Patriarchs and Anglican theologians, the following agreed statement was published: “Through our dynamic growth, we are conformed to the image of the Son of God (Rom.8:29) sharing ever more fully in deification (theosis) and all of us with unveiled faces, seeing the Glory of the Lord, as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed in the same image, from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor.3:18). In this way we participate in the mystery of Christ’s Resurrection including the Transfiguration.
It will take us a lifetime to understand all this.
One step might be the word of Jesus: “Abide in me as I abide in you” (John 15:4).
I want to end by mentioning something which recently happened to me. Over fifty years ago, as a curate in Middlesbrough , I had a group of young married couples who read Scripture together. We sometimes went dancing afterwards (I have a photo of Fr Crispin dancing with Mollie Simpson) Tony, Molly’s husband, our organist for 50 years, was recently given three months to live. On the phone Molly told me the news. All their four children were there. She said “It’s overwhelming but, Father, we all know where we are going!”. I told her I was preaching today, on the Transfiguration. “Oh”, she said “MY FAVOURITE FEAST”.