Transfiguration.

Saint Luke ix, verse 29 – And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Throughout the Old Testament the appearances of God to mankind have a double and seemingly contradictory character.  God appears in shining light, in brightness, in lightening, in fire.  To Abraham he appears as a flaming torch passing through the night in an uncanny vision.  To Moses he appears in a burning bush.  To the children of Israel he appears on Sinai in flashing lightening.  To Isaiah he sends the glowing coals of a censer.  And yet God also in the Old Testament is a hidden God, who manifests himself in clouds and smoke and veils and darkness.  He leads Israel by night with fire, but by day with smoke.  On Sinai Moses disappears to speak with God in an thick cloud.  Isaiah’s vision in the temple is of a place so filled with incense that it becomes an impenetrable smoke.

And I think this doubled character is also true of our own experience of God.  Sometimes we have flashes of insight, sudden understanding and clarity, impulses of faith that seem firmly rooted in our clear experience.  The light of God can break in on us because of some moral experience.  Perhaps we experience a tremendous goodness from another person which opens up a bright window through which we see God’s nature as love.  Or perhaps we have an aesthetic experience – some piece of music or some natural beauty that shows us the hand of the Creator.  But much of the time is it not the case that God seems hidden?  We may have some inkling of what God is doing, but his purposes are obscure.  He moves, as the cliché goes, in mysterious ways.  He writes straight, but with crooked lines which can only be finally read with a perspective that we usually do not enjoy.  God is above, and we below, and clouds and veils separate us.

In today’s gospel we see both of these signs of God’s presence.  At the Transfiguration our Lord’s divinity, his infinite splendor and glory, are revealed by his apparent and dazzling transformation.  But the sign of God in the story is two-fold.  First, there is this brightness and light: ‘his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering….And…they saw his glory’.  Saint Peter in the epistle speaks of this brightness as ‘the excellent glory’.  But secondly, there is the veil: ‘there came a cloud, and overshadowed them: and they feared as they entered the cloud’.  Our Lord’s divinity is revealed by his Transfiguration into dazzling brightness.  But his Father is present in the cloud and is perceived not as a sight but as a withdrawal of sight.

There are two paths to God, the way of affirmation and the way of negation.  The way of affirmation takes the good things of this world and transforms and transfigures them into a path to God.  We enjoy beauty, and praise its Creator for it.  We use our resources to serve God’s children in the world.  We set aside particular places where we will praise God and put aside the cares of the world.  We enjoy, like Saint John of the Cross, a dish of asparagus.  We encounter God in bread and wine and water.  The concrete things of earth are a ladder that leads up to heaven.

But there also is the way of negation.  We must remember that the things of this world are not God.  We enjoy our asparagus in Easter, but we fast in Lent lest we become chained down by food.  We love the beauty of the world, but we remember that it all is passing by very quickly and will end, as will we, in death.  And because all flesh goes down to the grave, we must detach ourselves from too much love for this dying world and all that is therein.  Life is for enjoyment.  But life also is for detachment, renunciation, partings, and loss.  We serve God through these negative experiences as much as through the positive.

The classic image for this double character of life is pilgrimage.  We are passing through the world to our true home, which is not here.  God expects us to be good travellers.  We are not to mess up the path; we should be kind to our fellow pilgrims; we should very much enjoy the sights and sounds of the journey and the food and drink we enjoy along the way.  But we are going somewhere else, and if we forget our destination we are liable to get lost, to wander off the path.  The way of affirmation reminds us that there is a definite path and that we should enjoy the journey.  The way of negation tells us that the path is not the same as the destination.

The feast of the Transfiguration is very much a positive, affirmative day.  The lessons and propers are full of joyful words and light:  ‘majesty’, ‘honour and glory’, ‘white and glistering’, ‘brightness’, ‘everlasting light’, ‘riches and plenteousness’.  The collect, which is one of the very few modern compositions in our Prayer Book, strikes the note of positive enjoyment:  that we ‘may be permitted to behold the King in his beauty’.  But even today, on this joyful feast, we enter the cloud and find that God is present in darkness as well as light.  Even in the context of the Transfiguration and the amazement of Christ’s healing power, even then the shadow is present.  Moses and Elijah appear to show that Christ fulfils the Law and Prophets, which they represent.  But they also appear ‘and spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem’ (ix.31). Again, just after the Transfiguration in Saint Luke our Lord heals a demon-possessed child, and we are told that

,,,they were all amazed at the mighty power of God.  But while they wondered every one at all things which Jesus did, he said unto his disciples, Let these sayings sink down into your ears: for the Son of man shall be delivered into the hands of men.  (ix.43f.)

Lest his disciples forget the negative way and the need to enter the cloud, our Lord brings to their mind his cross and his coming Passion.  Easter saves everything, but it does not abolish the cross or Good Friday.  The Transfiguration transforms everything, but in this life cloud and darkness never are fully banished.  So God comes to us in darkness too.  The great Anglican physician and poet, Henry Vaughan, wrote of this long ago:

There is in God, some say,

A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here

Say it is late and dusky, because they

See not all clear;

Oh, for that night, where I in him

Might live invisible and dim!                              (‘The night’)

The Transfiguration invites us to enjoy the light, but also to find God in the ‘dazzling darkness’.  So let us enjoy this feast and the ‘King in his beauty’.  But let us not forget that the most beautiful thing about our Lord is the love that he showed us in the dazzling darkness of his Passion and death.  The cross goes with the crown.  The cloud accompanies the light.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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