Transfiguration 2018—11 February 2018
Revd Martin Johnson
2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9
Like a good politician in the face of questioning by Leigh Sales Elisha remains firmly on message when twice he is questioned by the prophets about the departure of his master Elijah – 'Be silent.' He seems to be saying we are standing before a great mystery for which there are no words. The jibe "poor little talkative Christianity" comes from the E. M. Forster character Mrs. Moore in 'A Passage to India,' and it is true we do seem to use a lot of words. I believe in ecumenical endeavor but I have to confess that sometimes praying with my fellow Christians of other traditions does drive me to distraction! Some folk and they probably aren't aware of it want to invoke the power of the almighty by using the name of God in particular way, with either a strange inflection or hushed tones. I have sympathy with our Jewish brethren, let's just not mention the name, it would be so much better.
The problem is that we are bound by language, it is one of the things that makes us what we are. Even our thinking is governed by language, I think in English, I dream in English! But language will always come up short won't it? At Youth Group on Friday we spent some time in meditation quite an achievement with a group of boys who have just had a water fight in the courtyard! Even in meditation we are encouraged to think about a word…Maranatha, because we cannot silence our minds. But words are never enough, even poetry falls short despite the best efforts of our poets.
This is a quote from the former Primus of Scotland Richard Holloway: "The difficulty is that things are not what they say they are. The word water is not itself drinkable. Words point to things, but they can never be the things they point to. This may seem too obvious to waste time on, but it is a truth too often ignored in religious circles. All theology is a doomed but necessary attempt to express the inexpressible. God is the elusive mystery we try to capture and convey in language, but how can that ever be done? If the word water is not itself drinkable, how can the words we use to express the mystery of God be themselves absolute? They are metaphors, analogies, figures of speech, yet religious people have slaughtered and condemned each other over these experimental uncertainties. Our glory and agony as humans is that we long to find words that will no longer be words, mere signifiers, but the very experience they are trying to signify; and our tragedy is that we never succeed."
What is so important about today's feast of the Transfiguration is its context. In the first three gospels it provides a pivotal moment at the heart of the accounts. The scene is the road to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus is walking with his disciples and he asks who do people say that I am? The response is of course rather garbled, the disciples tell Jesus that some think of him as John the Baptist and others Elijah and still others one of prophets of old. But you, he says who do you say that I am? Peter's response is correct, on one level, but the word 'Messiah' could never do justice to who Jesus truly is; he knows this and so he takes his closest disciples and together they climb the hill of Transfiguration.
Today we celebrate that event that Metamorphosis which is the Greek word translated into the English as Transfiguration. Neither are words that we might use in everyday conversation and neither are really helpful in understanding today's feast but they do try to speak of what we truly are, what is latent in us, what is our potential. The potential of Jesus defies our earthly categories; after he questions his disciples he answers his own question! This is who I am!
Strangely enough I found all this easier to relate to when Susan and I had our break in the UK recently. It was deep winter of course and there was this all-pervading gloom, bleakness. The sun struggles to penetrate the overcast skies indeed sometimes it was barely present at all, it was sometimes like being in a grimy room with a very dull light bulb. But then we would experience something quite otherworldly: entering into Canterbury Cathedral even on the gloomiest of days is like stepping into a vast cavern filled with light, even the Parish Church in which I grew up located in a very grimy part of the town seemed light filled. Walking into these buildings were almost moments of transfiguration such was the gloom of January. This is of course the lesson behind the Transfiguration of Jesus. It can only be understood after the gloom of the road to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus telling his disciples of suffering he is to face, all part of that important context.
Entering into Canterbury Cathedral signs encourage quiet, and every hour on the hour the Chaplain of the day mounts the pulpit and leads those visiting the cathedral in prayer. The French are far blunter, both Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur have large notices at the doors…SILENCE. They are largely ignored which is a shame, but there is an inevitability about that. When emerging from the gloom of winter into these spaces of light the only proper response is silent awe. When Jesus emerged from the cloud and Peter from the gloom of the Jesus' predictions, the only proper response was silent awe. But Peter, not knowing what to say, felt the need to open his mouth. What came out was largely irrelevant! Not much changes.
I have been enjoying thinking again about Mark's gospel in this year of Mark, reading it and reading about it. One new idea among others has struck me. Mark's gospel is generally considered to be the oldest. It is a short and pithy account. Was it the only account known by John and was his gospel in effect a commentary on Mark's? If so John's greatest contribution to that project is perhaps the statement which undergirds his theology and which defies us to use more words. 'And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.' Is this statement not the key to understanding the Transfiguration of Jesus?
Holloway, speaking of our endeavours to understand God with words describes it as a tragedy, because never succeed. Indeed all we achieve is alienation one from another. 'Listen to him', says the voice from the cloud. Perhaps true ecumenism should be founded on this. We are about to journey in heart and mind, with Jesus to Jerusalem. We would do well to adopt this as our mantra for our Lenten journey. Amen.