Two weeks ago I spent my day off at a friend’s house in the Forest of Dean, and she's got two young daughters. We spent most of the afternoon doing a jigsaw, which was at one and the same time one of the most joyous and frustrating experiences I have had for some time. Presented with a delightful array of coloured pieces, what they wanted to do was to create their own picture! They were entirely disinterested in seeing the box. Katherine and I are both people who are fairly obsessive about getting things right. Probably quite good qualities in a Precentor and in a communications officer which is what Katherine is, but refreshingly unnecessary for a two or a four-year-old girl! And they wanted to build this jigsaw, which is actually quite a complicated one for that age group, without looking at the picture. So they didn't know that what they were supposed to be building was a picture of Mr Bump falling over a low wall and kind of looking in horror at the ground as it rose up towards him! So all that they had were colours and shapes and pieces and it was huge fun for them as they struggled to build the picture, because they didn't know what the complete was supposed to look like.
The transfiguration is an extraordinary story, a mystical story, and often misread I think. It can be read as Jesus being shown as he really is, as if what the disciples have witnessed and experienced on Earth walking about, the man with whom they have interacted over the past two or three years of his earthly ministry, and indeed the baby who who has grown up and become a child, and then an adult, and begun this itinerant ministry after his time working with his father in the carpenter's shop in Nazareth, is actually somebody entirely different. The Transfiguration somehow shows us the reality behind the image, behind the veil.
I think that’s an unfortunate reading of the story. It is less about reality and unreality, and far more about completeness.
We have just finished the Christmas cycle here in the cathedral, only on Tuesday there was a Christmas crib standing where I am now preaching from. There was straw and shepherds and wise men and a little baby in a manger, and we learned quite a lot about what God might be like, what our Saviour might be like, from that. By this time next week we will be deep going into the season of Lent. We will be thinking again about the adult Jesus, and particularly about the last few weeks of his life. We will be thinking about a man who got right up in the face of authority, a man who had a lot of things to say about fairness and justice about the rights of the poor, about who it is that matters in God's economy. In six weeks or so we will be waiting outside an empty tomb looking in confusion and wonder and worship at discarded grave wrappings and, with the disciples, trying to get our heads around how it might be that Jesus, who has been our friend, our companion, and our inspiration, is also our risen and glorified Lord.
All of these encounters with Jesus – baby, wild eyed preacher, crucified criminal, and disappeared body, are genuine encounters. All of them, are true, and are not counterfeit or partial. All of this helps us to build up a picture through the pages of the Scripture, as to who our God might be.
And so what I want to say about the Transfiguration is this, it is not so much a story about seeing the reality as if what we saw before wasn't real, but is rather about moments of clarity. It's about showing the disciples, for a brief moment if you like, the box in which the jigsaw comes. Peter, James and John are about to watch Jesus seemingly completely implode. They're about to watch his life spiral out of control, they are about to watch him be viciously pursued by a powerful religious elite, to be arrested and tried in a kangaroo court and to be crucified. They’re going to watch him die and they're going to have to bury his body and all at the age of 33. The Transfiguration is a quick flash of the box of the jigsaw puzzle so that they know what it's all supposed to look like. It's about having that quick glimpse of the whole.
Most of us will recognise those Transfiguration moments in our own faith. Those moments where suddenly we do see the whole, and our faltering and confused journey of faith is confirmed in some way. We don't get many of them, and they don't come frequently, but it is part of that promise to his people that we may look upon our God with unveiled faces. That the status of the relationship which Christ yearns to have with us is just as close, closer, more intimate, than that which we have with those we love the most.
In some churches they will physically veil the statues, the crosses and that which is richly bejewelled and ornamented on Shrove Tuesday night and keep them covered the whole of Lent. We don't do that here but you will notice the difference when you come to church on Wednesday, as I hope you will. The altars will be hung in simple fabric, the gold and ornamental candlesticks and cross will have gone from the altar to be replaced by simpler wooden ones and the tone of the whole place will, if you like have been veiled. But none of that means that the glory is gone. It is a recognition, in ritual terms, of the fact that our lives very often feel veiled – that we suffer misfortune, sickness, weakness, that it feels like we beat on the clouds trying to get God’s attention, that we struggle and fail to live as if we believed the Gospel, that we fail to be the person that God would have us be, and settle instead for someone lesser.
And so here, on the cusp of Lent, a reminder of the whole picture, which we are too close to the ground to see, too obsessed with the individual pieces to remember we care about, a reminder that, in fact, "and all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as they reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another”.
By a quirk of the rota I note that I won't preach in this cathedral again until Good Friday. When I realised that a couple of days ago I remembered something else as well, which is that very often these Transfiguration moments, these moments of seeing the entirety of the story in which we usually only participate with the information round us at the time, these moments very often happen on Mountains. Jesus goes up to the high mountain to pray, and mountains in Judaism and indeed in the story of Christ, are symbols of the presence of God, symbols of the meeting place between us and the divine. That starts as early of course as Mount Ararat where the Ark comes to rest after the great flood, and Mount Sinai where the commandments are delivered to Moses. Elijah is of course hiding in the cave on the mountain when he has his extraordinary experience of the earthquake, wind, and fire, and then the still small voice of calm showing him the reality of God. And so it will be that on Good Friday when the sky turns black and the veil of the temple is torn in two, and the earth shakes, and the bodies of the saints arise, and Jesus cries out with his last breath for the redemption of the world, it will be on ‘a green hill far away, without a city wall’.
Part of the discipline of prayer, which actually is not just a religious exercise but I think is an important and vital social and ethical exercise as well, for we who live in a very complicated and complex world in which we are called to act with justice, with mercy, with an interest in the poor, with a keen awareness of injustice and unfairness around us, where we’re called to challenge those things, whether they are close to home or much further abroad - we are therefore required to seek out those mountaintop experiences. To give enough space in our lives for prayer, to give enough space of our lives for reflection, that we might at least open ourselves up to having the whole picture revealed to us once in a while. To be reminded of the reality that we stand before a dazzling, vibrant, wonderful, generous God who is able to meet with the law and the prophets, Moses and Elijah, and fulfil them and interpret them to us in a brand-new way, which issues forth in healing and compassion and grace which is abundant and more than we can imagine.
Seeking those mountaintop experiences, those moments where we see the picture and the pieces come together are part of what the journey of Lent is all about. Opening ourselves up to that experience, unclogging the channels between us and God, reaching for the box, to remind us what the jigsaw is actually supposed to be of. And remembering that the Alleluias, though they may fall silent for a while, are actually what the entire enterprise is about.
Come, let us go up to the mountain of God!