Ash Wednesday is in three days’ time, so Lent is approaching fast. Lent is a time for penitence, when we not only acknowledge our own wrong headedness and potential for evil but also register the reality of our imperfect world.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, with all its deception and cruelty, inevitably makes us cry, ‘This is wrong’, and ask what could have been done, can be done, and what we might have colluded with? Wars are always a horrible mixture of blunder, lies and malice.
It is also timely and appropriate that we always prepare for Lent with the story of the Transfiguration, which we heard, not only because it is about transformation – metamorphosis and transfiguration mean virtually the same thing – but also because it is such a resonant event for orthodox Christians, who are so involved in this conflict. Scandalously, the Russian Orthodox Church has so far been in lock-step with President Putin’s toxic nationalism. If Lent is not about spiritual and ethical change – about the possibility of changing and our hoping for it – it has little purpose.
Today I have just two main ideas to share.
The first is that the story of Jesus being transfigured, his being seen for who he truly is, is not just about him, but about people; it’s about us too. It’s about the kind of people just like the core disciples – Peter, James and John – who are prone to falling asleep, to not quite grasping what is going on, or just being subsumed by all the immediate concerns around us – in our actual lives and from the media.
The second is how the kind of metamorphosis the Christian tradition is talking about can be lost because of the frailty of the language and imagery we use. I am going to lean on the life-cycle of the butterfly quite a bit, because that has been one of the great favourites of the Church down the ages.
Concerning the first point, The Transfiguration is clearly another stage in the revelation of who Jesus is: the one who perfectly reflects the glory of God. According to the Gospel of Luke, at his baptism in the river Jordan by John, this revelation is more a private affair. The voice from heaven is addressing Jesus: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved.’ In today’s reading the disciples hear that voice too, but it comes from within a cloud, and is directed towards them: ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ Which could be a very simple but urgent message for us, and for those with greater power, especially during Lent, a time to listen much more.
That is one of the reasons that we tend to have an intensification of Bible Studies, Lent Courses, and still, at least, residual habits of giving things up; but I am not convinced that any of those lead necessarily to us listening to Jesus any more than usual. They can easily become seasonal activities, like singing carols at Christmas, with more than a hint of nostalgia about them.
If we are called to listen, that means so much more than just hearing. It means to take to heart, to live and to act. There is a lot of explicit tenderness towards the human condition in this Gospel – it is tough to listen. The disciples who can’t keep their eyes open during the vision on the mountain are the same ones who fall asleep when Jesus endures the night before his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane. St Luke says that they were made sleepy by grief.
But listening and attending – being mindful – of what Jesus means is essential. The whole import of the Gospel is that Jesus has good news to share, wisdom which can help and transform the hearers if they are able truly to listen.
Key to that is being reminded who we, who all human beings, truly are: children of God too, beloved, whatever our scars or predicament, capable of great compassion and of being liberated from the fears and obsessions that ossify our hearts, people who can embrace peace and truth, however marred. In giving extra attention to this during Lent we are marking this time of the year as a particularly hopeful one, when despite so much we see inside ourselves and outside; we embrace the belief that all can change with an energy matching the natural world.
Most of us, fortunately, come across the idea of metamorphosis when we learn about the life-cycle of butterflies instead of in Kafka’s terrifying story of the same title. But I think this can still lead us astray, because it can put too much emphasis on the spectacular climax of a whole complex and mysterious process. It was the Greek philosopher Aristotle who was the first person in history that we know of who even mentioned butterflies, and he named them after the soul or the spirit, leaving us with a potent sense of their beauty and fragility.
But there is always a temptation to see the butterfly as the ultimate form of a creature which actually spends most of its life in completely different forms, and to associate the religious journey with a liberation from earthly things. The caterpillar was drawn as a worm in religious art and was often deemed a very inferior creature, and the chrysalis was seen as a tomb.
Entomologists are still discovering the marvellous variety of butterfly lives. Some species of butterflies can live in their adult form for over a year, but more attention is now paid to the other stages of their lives: eggs that can change colour to remain concealed; caterpillars that can live for years, eating and growing by making themselves virtually invisible or terrifyingly conspicuous; an incredible biological system that can dismantle a small carnivorous grub inside a chrysalis and rebuild it as a large blue butterfly. But there is also huge continuity between these stages. If you were able to look inside an old caterpillar you would see a chrysalis about to be born.
So, when we think about metamorphosis and transfiguration of our own lives, maybe we should accept the subtle changes too and the necessity of phases. All are transfigurations. This might help us cope too, when the broken and disordered world which we usually manage to keep at a mental distance knocks on our door.
Francis Fukayama has had many mentions lately for his optimistic phrase ‘the End of History’, coined at the end of the Cold War. It was not the end, when a butterfly was launched. It was a moment in a complex and arduous life cycle.
Listening to Jesus Christ. Taking to heart that we are all beloved, might lead to a real transformation, but it won’t be just yet.