Back in the 70s you used to hear a lot about auras - the spiritual light that surrounds people, especially around the face and top of the head, and there were people who claimed to be able to see your aura or even read your aura - there were some colours that indicated health and spiritual balance, other colours that indicated a person who was troubled. More recently, some scientific research suggests that the human body has its own electromagnetic field, and photography techniques have been developed so you can actually get a snapshot of your own personal aura. We glow, in other words, on a spectrum that our physical eyes don’t normally detect. It’s a somewhat reassuring notion, perhaps, that spiritual energy, if that’s what the aura really is, can be visible - then again, when you really think about it, that’s what the human face is for. Think, for example, about the face of a child - the face of innocent expectation and awakening potential. Or the face of an elderly person filled with the memory of love given and received, the face of trust that at the end of all things is a safe harbour. Faces are very often radiant, not only in wonder and happiness but also, sometimes, in grief and in sorrow. We can be transfigured and made radiant when we lose ourselves, just perhaps for a moment, in the deep mystery of what is.
In the story from the Book of Exodus, Moses, after speaking with God on Mount Sinai where he is lost to the people in a thick cloud that covers the mountain-top, comes down with his face shining so brightly that the people can’t bear to see it. Moses face is like the Moon - not the source of light itself but a borrowed or reflected light that can be brilliant and even hard to look at on a dark night. Moses is transfigured - he has communed with God face to face and seen the glory of God up close. Interestingly though, in Exodus we learn that even Moses is not not permitted to see the face of God - instead God covers Moses in the cleft of a rock until God has walked past, and then allows Moses to see - well the Hebrew word, achor, coyly informs us Moses gets to see just the hindquarters of God passing by. Ex 33.22 And when he comes down the mountain and rejoins the people they demand to be shielded even from the fading of the radiance of that encounter. Or as St Paul puts it in our reading from 2 Corinthians, the telos - a word our Bible translates as end but which more accurately means not the passing away but the fulfillment and the deepest truth of the light as it faded from Moses’ face.2 Cor 3.13
But if Moses’ face shines, the radiance of Jesus illuminates his whole body and his clothing and even transfigures the scene on the mountain-top that seems to enter into a different dimension of experience. Isn’t this a strange story? Jesus takes his three closest disciples up a mountain where they see him, shining from within with the light of heaven, chatting to the two all-time greats, Moses and Elijah who, so the legends went, never actually died but got sort of beamed up to heaven. And the whole scene, the disciples included, are covered with a cloud that reminds us of the cloud that hides the conversation of Moses and God on Mt Sinai. What are we supposed to make of this?
I read the other day that the Transfiguration is like a science fiction story where time and space get distorted - for a start, the disciples’ vision of Jesus is more typical of his appearances after the resurrection, so it is a sort of advance viewing, a foretaste of what’s ahead not only for Jesus but for all of us. The future, in other words, has for a few brief moments coincided with the present. And at the same time it’s a vision of the divine world – heaven, in other words, which the ancient world assumes is geographically up there somewhere – heaven colliding for a few brief moments with earth, with Elijah and Moses there as witnesses by way of a sort of unnecessary guarantee of Jesus’ credentials as the one in whom all time and all space are experienced simultaneously. For good, God-fearing Jews who know their Bible this is a sort of symbolic code, a shiny Jesus up on the mountain-top immediately puts them in mind of a shiny-faced Moses coming down with the tablets of the Law in the Book of Exodus, and then they would think of Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy predicting that another prophet as great as himself would arise, and commanding the people, ‘when he does, listen to him’.Deut 18.15 For the disciples, of course, it’s all part of the growing realisation of who Jesus actually is, and we get this sense that it’s not so much about Jesus being in any way changed but the disciples experiencing a new way of seeing, just for a few brief moments, getting just a glimpse of Jesus as he actually is and seeing the true beauty and the light of God shining through him.
And so the first thing I to do with this is to draw the connection between the transfiguration of Jesus and the transformation of disciples who need to learn a new way of seeing. The disciples who – just for a moment – see in Jesus the whole of time and space – are able to do so only because they themselves are being transformed, their eyes are being opened so just for a moment they see the world not through the human lens of desire and selfishness and need but through the divine lens of grace. That’s the first thing, that the transfiguration of Jesus shows us the transformed way of seeing that lovers know intuitively and disciples need sometimes to be reminded of.
And this is the same point Paul makes in 2 Corinthians when he tells us to take off our veil - or our sunglasses or anything else that we might use to filter the light - and to look into the face of Jesus as the mirror of God’s loving goodness. Maybe to really understand this you need to know that in the ancient world mirrors were seen as really high-tech - to see your own face reflected was little short of other-worldly. Paul is telling us that if we look into the mirror of God’s love we will see not our own face but the face of Jesus - not ourselves as we are but ourselves as God created us to be. And what we spend our time focusing on, St Paul tells us, is what we will be transformed into.2 Cor 3.18 So it makes a difference what you pay attention to!
That’s the first thing. And the second thing is this, when we do have the ‘ah-hah!’ experience, when we have the unexpected epiphanies of God that are part and parcel of discipleship, what are we supposed to do about it? Peter, who the gospel writer lovingly assures us doesn’t have a clue what’s going on, babbles something about building a row of huts. It seems there’s something symbolic in this from Luke’s point of view, perhaps something to connect this mountain-top experience with the story of Moses’ transfiguration that the people of Israel celebrated in the Feast of Tabernacles. We probably don’t need to delve to deeply into that today, but the point remains, when we catch a glimpse of the undiluted beauty of God we need to do something. Peter is right about that. We need to celebrate it somehow. And the all too human reaction to catching sight of something as wild and unrestrained - as un-pin-down-able as the beauty of God - what human beings generally want to do with that is to pin it down, to catch it in a cage of words, make a doctrine out of it or put up a whopping great building. The church, of course, is very good at buildings, especially very old ones, maybe too good at mistaking the brilliance of God for the edifice, too good at putting up buildings to try to keep the experience of God inside, and the rest of the world out. We need to resist our tendency to build places to retreat into, because the first thing that Jesus does is to gently lead his disciples back the way they came, straight back down the hill to the everyday world which is where, when you think about it, it most matters that the beauty of God is made visible.
The mountain-top experience, and the light that illumines who Jesus is, and suggests who we might ourselves become - this is the business of the season following Epiphany. It is a season of light. The magi follow the light by which they recognise and worship Jesus. He turns water into wine. Each of our readings over the last few weeks has shone light on who Jesus is and what he means. Next week, the mood changes and the Bible readings become more challenging - Lenten and penitential, inviting us into self-reflection and even struggle against the darker forces of our world and our own selves. We will be invited to take up our own cross, to trust God and face our own dangers. Today’s reading of shining faces and mountain-top visions and the promise of transformation is intended to sustain us, and to give us a glimpse of what lies ahead.
And so, let us begin.The lighting of the fire from last year’s Palm Crosses immediately follows the sermon. The ash from this fire will be used in our Ash Wednesday service.