The Veil is drawn back
Sunday Next Before Lent 2016
If you remember, a few weeks ago, we had the story of Jesus turning water into wine, and Sandy talked about how God transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary. And in today’s story, called the Transfiguration, the thin curtain, the veil if you like, separating God’s dimension, the extraordinary, from ordinary life is pulled back, and the disciples glimpse God’s glory. It’s no coincidence that this event takes place on a mountain or that it takes place after prayer. Interestingly, those two things were prerequisites of the Exodus story too.
St. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, has an unusual take on the story of Moses and the ten commandments, suggesting that the veil over Moses’ face was an indication that the Israelites were deliberately choosing to put a barrier between themselves and God, a barrier that would remain until Jesus came to remove it. Paul continues this theme, urging those troublesome Christians at Corinth not to copy the Israelites by ‘veiling’ things, but to be open and truthful. And maybe openness and truthfulness are necessary before we can really appreciate the ‘mountain top’ experience, before we can discern the extraordinary in the ordinary.
It’s not easy, is it, being totally open and honest about ourselves? Perhaps some of this is cultural, as the British have a reputation for being ‘buttoned-up’. The ‘stiff upper lip’ persona is perhaps a sign of failing to come to terms with what is really happening in our lives. I have spent quite a bit of time this week at the Sandra Chapman Centre at JPH. I started chemotherapy last Thursday. The cancer journey isn’t an especially easy one to be open about and to share because, quite a lot of the time, it seems to be about sharing bad news. Telling people about my initial diagnosis was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. But the reaction, the huge amount of prayer and support that came as a result, is what has seen us through thus far. Sometimes, you just have to bite the bullet and tell the truth as it is!
It’s pretty much the same with all the difficulties of life and faith that assail us. Our Christian family can only help and support us if we are open and honest with them. We are, of course, afraid of sharing our vulnerabilities, but what we so often fail to realise is that our brothers and sisters in Christ (including our priests) are vulnerable and fragile too, and understand how we feel.
Part of being open and honest about ourselves involves reflecting on those times when we have been hurt or have hurt other people; when we have found life’s circumstances most challenging and perhaps made decisions or chosen paths that have not been the right ones and have had poor consequences as a result. Lent, starting with Ash Wednesday this coming Wednesday, is a time in the Church’s year that is especially set aside for such reflection. Most of the time we can manage to lay down the burdens of our past before a loving God who longs to forgive us, on our own, but sometimes we need a bit of help, and the Church therefore has a framework of liturgy and sacrament, called the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which helps to give us the right words when we struggle, and makes God’s forgiveness of us clear on a personal level, so that we don’t lay our burden before God, only to pick it up and take it away again. If anyone would like to avail themselves of this sacrament during Lent, then please just ask Sandy or me. We are here to help, not to judge.
The coming of God’s Kingdom involves earthly events, but those events are moments of revelation, unveiling God’s power and presence. The Transfiguration recalls Jesus’ baptism, with the voice from Heaven identifying Jesus as God’s Son. It also anticipates the glory of resurrection. It comes at a pivotal moment in Jesus’ ministry; Moses and Elijah talk about His ‘departure’ – the word is actually ‘exodus’. The fact that the disciples are wrestling with sleep points us to Gethsemane and Jesus’ passion. The disciples, who had been hearing Jesus talk about His forthcoming death, are given a glimpse of who Jesus really is. The curtain is lifted on God’s domain, and they are permitted to see and hear for a moment. But in his desire to preserve that moment, Peter misses it really. It’s only when he looks back much later in reflection, that he realises its significance.
The Transfiguration is a revelation of Christ’s identity as the Messiah, the Son of God, and in Him, of our own destiny. St. Luke is the only one of the Gospel writers who makes it clear that what the disciples saw in the face of Jesus was the glory of God. The Transfiguration of Jesus, which tears in two the veil between earth and heaven, looks ahead to His passion, to the dark hour when Jesus dies on the cross and the veil in the temple at Jerusalem is torn apart.
The disciples want to stay on the mountain and who can blame them? They want, as it were, to bottle the moment, to hold on to it. It’s a temptation for us all, to want to stay in those extraordinary moments of revelation, but it’s futile and dangerous. In our Christian lives, and in the life of the Church, we are sometimes granted glimpses of heaven and we need them, but if we are to be of any earthly use we mustn’t seek to prolong them. Such experiences do not protect us from the humdrum or the horrible, but they do help to transform our suffering and our circumstances.
Those moments come, perhaps especially when we gather together in worship, as we receive Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist, but also sometimes as we glimpse God in His creation, or the glory of God shining in each other, or Christ in the life of our Church. Those spine-tingling moments of revelation and vocation, that sense of where we fit into God’s plan, that discovery of the extraordinary in the ordinary, was what the early Christians spoke of when, like St. Peter and St. Paul, they looked into the face of Jesus and there discovered not only the glory of God, but their own calling. Such moments, unbidden and unpredictable, come often not just for our own sake, but to strengthen us for particular tasks or to endure particular situations. The hearts, lives and maybe even the faces of those who heed God’s call to hear and to obey his Son, will be transformed, whether they realise it or not, and they will be sustained through the periods when following Christ is anything but glorious.
Heaven beckons, but as the writer C.S. Lewis pointed out, meanwhile there’s Monday morning. Good luck with that!