II Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; II Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9 Oremus Bible Browser

In the name of God; Father Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

“Strengthened by this glimpse of glory fearful lest our faith decline,
We like Peter find it tempting to remain and build a shrine.
But true worship gives us courage to proclaim what we profess,
That our daily lives may prove us people of the God we bless.”
[from first hymn: ‘We have come at Christ’s own bidding’, VU 104]

The background to the Old Testament reading that accompanies Mark’s account of the transfiguration is the transition from Elijah to Elisha and the ascension of Elijah. It stresses the divine destination of the prophetic voice and the continuity or the eternal nature of the prophetic voice: that is, the call in every age for humanity to echo the divine word. Perhaps more than echo, perhaps it’s the call in every age to actually give voice to the Divine. I came across these lyrics by Van Morrison last night:
“I’m a dweller on the threshold and I’m waiting at the door
And I’m standing in the darkness
I don’t want to wait no more.
Feel the angel of the present in the mighty crystal fire
Lift me up and soothe my darkness
Let me travel even higher.”

We stand this Sunday on threshold of Lent. Will we stay with it for its forty days and is it that staying with it that is suggested in the Old Testament reading by that journey that Elijah and Elisha take from Gilgal to Bethel, Bethel to Jericho, Jericho to the Jordan? There’s the sense of having to move from one place to the next before we can achieve the transition, the movement from Elijah to Elisha. The crossing of the Jordan in that same narrative suggests both the freedom from Exodus with the parting of the Red Sea, but perhaps also looks forward, looks forward to Palm Sunday and the triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

‘I’m a dweller on the threshold and I’m waiting at the door,
And I’m standing in the darkness
I don’t want to wait no more.’

There are obvious threshold experiences that we all mark with rituals: birth and birthdays, marriage with wedding ceremonies and death with funerals. But there are also rituals and liturgies that we use to make real the more subtle transitions that are part of our spiritual growth and our growing into the fullness of our divinely-voiced natures:
‘Feel the angel of the present in the mighty crystal fire
Lift me up and soothe my darkness
Let me travel even higher.’

The gospel account of the Transfiguration has some really classical ritual elements to it. It’s a small group that is separated from the whole - Peter, James and John - this didn’t include all the disciples even. It’s a small group separated from the whole just as this small group has separated itself for this time from the world outside. They go to a holy place, which is signified by the mountain - mountains lifting us up, taking us closer to the Divine. Then there’s that encounter that is creative of change and, importantly with rituals, the change is named. The ritual of a wedding - ‘I declare thee to be husband and wife’; the ritual of a funeral - ‘we here commit the body to the ground, ashes to ashes, dust to dust’. Then the ritual of the birthday - ‘congratulations you’re now....whatever’. And here in this ritual there is a naming also - ‘This is my son, the Beloved’. And then as with all rituals, there is a returning to the world that they had previously left.

Now if we look at the Transfiguration and our focus is on Christ and his life and his work, then there’s a number of ways we can perhaps interpret the Transfiguration. It might confirm Peter’s recognition of the Messiah, which is why the reading begins six days later - Peter had just recognised Christ. It could also be, because of the account of the appearance of Jesus, it could be to prefigure the transformation that will take place in the resurrection of Christ. Or it could be to add wholeness and completeness to the figure of Christ before we get the next episode - to bring together the prophets through Elijah, the law through Moses, and the Word-made-flesh, all in one, whole and complete. Could be any of those and each one of them provides an opportunity to just explore further the place of Christ. This could also be an account that mirrors the eastern tradition of enlightenment, the reaching a point at which wholeness is to be found and from where one can move on in a different way. And we could explore all of those.

But I guess the thing to do is for us to look and see, where can we locate this ritual experience in the present and in our lives? Is there a place in our lives where we are to be transfigured, such that our clothes become a dazzling white such as no one on earth could bleach? Is there a mountain top experience in which we are to become one with the divine voice, with the divine law and with the divine-made-flesh? In posing that question as I wrote it I thought the obvious answer was, ‘Of course not’. But if we look at the naming of this ritual, the answer does become clear, because it’s in the naming - ‘this is my son, the beloved’ - for it’s the same naming that we hear at the baptism of Jesus. So as we prepare for Lent, as we make ourselves ready to begin the journey of Lent, we are recalled to our baptism, the ritual cleansing, our actual forgiveness, our transfiguration into the body of Christ. It’s almost as if this is a grown-up version of the baby-stuff that we do. The baby-stuff that we do is important - it is a ritual that speaks intent in exactly the same way as a bride and groom speak their intent. This today we hear, a more grown up version - this is what we now move towards, we are recalled, we are recalled and reminded of our baptism. In the initiation into the church we become one with the body of Christ.

Lent then becomes a journey for us and we might see it as an ascent to a higher place - a ritual journey, whereby with those we trust and with those who can see us, we might withdraw and climb toward the Divine, seeking an encounter that will enable us to hear our name as from a heavenly cloud. How many of us still hear our names as if they were given by parents long ago? What we see here is another naming - each of us are named by the Divine. We ritualise that in our baptism. Sure, our parents gave us the name, but in the body of the church that name is uttered, through ritual, into the universe.

Now we come to the Transfiguration and our expectation should be to hear that name, and if not that name, the name that we are given, spoken by the Divine, originating in heaven. No wonder, in verse 6, we hear that Peter, James and John were terrified. Because as we ascend toward that which is Divine so the unreality of the world in which we live suddenly does become terrifying. What we thought was a comfortable small pond is suddenly the reality of a vast ocean. In this narrative of transfiguration we are recalled to our baptism, we have the opportunity of Lent to climb step by step toward a higher place, to find ourselves dwelling - either dwelling in or dwelt in by, the Divine. This is the journey on which we’re about to embark. And I wonder - I’m sure some of you will remember these words from a song of long ago. It was playing when I was keying in on the computer and I’ve never heard these words as speaking of the Lent journey before:

‘And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our souls
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll
And she's buying a stairway to heaven.’

The Lord be with you.

Peter Humphris

Textweek Transfiguration