The story of The Transfiguration is read twice every year: once in Lent, and the other time, now, in August. Because of the timing of the festival of the Transfiguration on the 6th of August, it became associated with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – on the 6th and 9th of August 1945, respectively.
Those of us who were around in the 1960s and 1970s will recall the fear of nuclear annihilation suspended over us like the sword of Damocles, and the appalling death toll and nature of the obliteration in a ball of incandescent fire haunting the world. We lived with an historical and potential future Transfiguration of a terrible kind, where lives were snuffed out by a blinding light, and sinister cinder silhouettes were, in places, all that remained – a type of anti- transfiguration, in which life is consumed by a destructive, man-made light.
The Gospel story, of course is about God’s glory shining out upon Christ and being witnessed by a tiny group of disciples. However, the church has rarely understood this passage as being just about Jesus; it has seen it as also about the experience of the disciples, and by extension, of all believers – including us. And I think we sometimes fail to make that connection. Partly to blame might be the cautious habits of those who have seen themselves as being responsible for making sure that ‘ordinary’ people don’t get the wrong end of the stick or, even worse, slip into some kind of heresy. I mean those who expound the meaning and significance of a biblical event or saying in a way that can turn it into a thing, a matter or subject to form an opinion about, rather than a universal story of what it is like to be a Christian, or indeed a human being, living life in the shadow of mystery and revelation.
A reminder that most of the evidence we have leads to the conclusion that St Mark’s was the first gospel to be written: the main reason that is thought to be the case is that St Mathew and St Luke follow the same order as St Mark, and use many of the exact same words, but slip in little changes and other traditions of what Jesus has said. We know about all the long and most beloved parables thanks to Luke, for instance. But there is a directness about St Mark’s Gospel that sets it apart. One aspect of this is that the disciples closest to Jesus are painted warts and all. I heard a preacher once describe them as ‘a right shower’, and another came up with an ingenious explanation for this negative portrayal – that the gospels were written by the next generation of Christians who had become very critical of their predecessors. To me, a much better explanation is simply that they were all human beings, with faults and a tendency not to ‘get’ what was going on.
St Peter becomes the representative figure for the baffled Christian. He is called by Jesus, by the shores of Galilee, from his ordinary practical life as a fisherman. On the night Jesus is arrested he can’t keeps his eyes open whilst Jesus prays alone in the garden of Gethsemane, and he goes on to deny having anything to do with him to save his own neck. And in the account of The Transfiguration, when, in a vision, Christ’s identity flashes forth, when he is bathed in the divine Glory, St Peter seems to want to trap the moment. As Elijah and Moses also appear in the vision, St Peter suggests building each one a little mini Temple – a tabernacle, in which to stay. But, of course, such experiences are fleeting and the very essence of the Christian Gospel is that God is not a stationary God, but a fast God, an everywhere God.
We should not be too hard on St Peter. His confusion reminds me of St Francis, that other utterly human saint, who had a vision in the broken down church of San Damiano, where Christ told him to ‘repair my house.’ St Francis took him literally and rebuilt the church building, only later to realise that a renewal of the church’s spiritual life was needed. Was that physical rebuilding wasted or was it part of the journey?
The sort of mistakes, miscalculations, and misunderstandings that St Peter made are ones we all make. It is hard to carry the vision of Christ into our ordinary lives and in the face of a world which often treats it as folly. I continue to find inspiration in Edwin Muir’s poem The Transfiguration, which he wrote in the wake of World War 2 and as fresh anxieties were being generated by the dawn of the atomic age. We live in an age of anxiety again, so perhaps it speaks to all of us who, like St Peter, have glimpsed God’s vision for people and the whole of creation but sometimes, understandably, become heavy-hearted.
But he will come again, it’s said, though not
Unwanted and unsummoned; for all things,
Beasts of the field, and woods, and rocks, and seas,
And all mankind from end to end of the earth
Will call him with one voice…
Then he will come, Christ the uncruciified,
Christ the discrucified, his death undone,
His agony unmade, his cross dismantled –
Glad to be so – and the tormented wood
Will cure its hurt and grow into a tree,
In a green springing corner of young Eden…