Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Mountain and the Desert: From Transfiguration to Lent

Have you ever had a moment in your life when all the things going round in your head have just fallen into place? When you’ve seen your life in a fresh light, and all your old ambitions and expectations for the future have been turned on their head?

I experienced something like that many years ago, when I had to deliver a long and complex presentation to senior executives of the company I worked for. I’d never done anything remotely like that before, and I was expecting it to be professional suicide on a grand scale. But as I stood in front of that intimidating wall of charcoal pin-striped suits, in a way I can’t adequately describe or explain, everything came together. And while they didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm for the business plan I was proposing, it emerged (to my own enormous surprise) that the presentation itself was one of the most effective they’d seen.

This relatively undramatic event turned my life plans on their head. Because I couldn’t escape the conclusion that God had unlocked this hidden skill for a purpose – with the intention that it should be used in his service. And that realisation was the first step on a journey that led to a major career change and to the ministry it’s my privilege to have now. The journey is ongoing, and only God knows where it will lead in the future. But whatever happens, it’s radically different from anything I had ever imagined before that one pivotal day in 1993.

Mark’s Gospel recounts a much more dramatic moment in the lives of Peter, James and John that similarly changed their life priorities. Jesus takes them on a hike up a mountain, where something happens that they can’t adequately describe or explain. The way they tell it later, Jesus is transfigured; his appearance changes. For a moment his physical presence seems to be eclipsed by the dazzling, divine radiance from within. And that’s not the end of the strangeness. They’re joined by Moses and Elijah, two of the key figures from the Old Testament: the Lawgiver and the archetypal prophet respectively. Predictably enough, Peter does what he often seems to do at important moments – he talks nonsense. And he’s rebuked by nothing less than a voice from Heaven.

What can we say about this magnificent and mysterious experience? Theologians have been grappling with it for all the centuries since, with little agreement on exactly what it means. But the first question people tend to ask today is whether things can  really have happened quite the way the Bible describes them. Or whether there’s a more natural, human explanation for the story that’s come down to us. And it’s a good question – a legitimate use of the rational, scientific brains that God gave us, and the sort of question that religious leaders refused to contemplate for much too long,

In fact there’s compelling evidence that something truly unique and mysterious did happen up there. But it’s possible for us to look past the supernatural elements of the story. And far from losing the wonder of the moment, it helps us see all the more clearly what’s going on in the minds of Jesus’ companions.

Remember, these are men who’ve been following Jesus for months. They’ve come to love and respect him. They’re in awe of his wisdom and goodness. And in the case of Peter, he’s already accepted Jesus as the Messiah – the godly king whose coming was foretold in the Old Testament. But there’s no clear evidence that James and John are as advanced as Peter in their thinking. And even Peter himself has yet to grasp fully who and what Jesus is.

All that’s about to change. Because up there on the remote mountaintop they have one of those life experiences that I described at the beginning – a psychological moment that turns their life and everything they’ve ever stood for on its head. And what happens in essence is that, for the first time, they see Jesus in proper context. So far, they’ve seen him as a spiritual master, a freedom fighter, and perhaps a national leader in waiting – that much is clear from the Gospel accounts. And they’ve taken pride, not always of the best sort, in their own status as his inner circle of trusted lieutenants.

But now something happens to make those blinkers of cliquish pride and self-interest fall from their eyes. And in that moment of blinding vision, they understand that Jesus is nothing less than the culmination of Israel’s history: that God is now present in a way that the Law of Moses could only hint at; present in a way that the great prophets like Elijah always looked forward to. And in that same moment, they perceive the revised life plan to which God is calling them: no longer just minions of a regional cult figure, but Apostles who will carry this astonishing and universal truth out into the world.

So, if we could look back in time, what would we see happening? A true miracle visible to anyone in the vicinity? Or three men lost in the throes of a mystical vision? Or was it simply a psychological quantum leap recounted in religious language? Opinions differ. But whichever view we take, supernatural or mystical or scientific, the Transfiguration has a vital relevance to the weeks ahead of us.

This coming week sees the beginning of Lent – the weeks of spiritual preparation leading up to Easter. For many people it will involve making some kind of sacrifice. This has traditionally taken the form of fasting, but I know people whose Lenten devotion involves giving up alcohol or smoking or television or the use of their mobile phone or even social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. The point is that for a few weeks we give up something that makes us feel satisfied, something we have come to depend on for our comfort and relaxation.  And we do our best to replace that familiar source of comfort with something more reflective and life-enhancing.

In fact it’s not what we give up that matters, but what we take on in its place. It might involve coming to the Lent course that we’ll be running once again. Or it may be prayer, or some spiritual reading, or just a few minutes each day to be ourselves, to look for the face of Christ and listen for his voice in our own lives. But whatever we choose to do in Lent, we are symbolically following Jesus out into the wilderness of temptation  to share his struggle against the incessant self-serving demands of our human nature. It can be uncomfortable at first, as we become more aware of our weaknesses and failings. But for countless people Lent has changed the whole way they see the world and their place within it for the better.

And in a real sense, the desert of temptation and the mountain of transfiguration go together. We spend so much of our lives on autopilot, getting on with business as usual, that we become blind to Christ’s transforming presence in our lives. But as our reading from 2 Corinthians reminds us, God is always ready to give us “the light of the knowledge of his glory displayed in the face of Christ”. And it’s in making the space to reflect and pray that we open ourselves up to a fresh vision of Christ and new possibilities for our own future. This may take the form of a dramatic spiritual experience. More often it involves some very natural event such as I experienced two decades ago – something that takes us off autopilot for just long enough to hear see and hear things that we’ve been failing to notice.

And one of the most glorious aspects of this story is that we too are being slowly transfigured – the divine spark that lives in each of us will become ever more clearly visible as we follow in his footsteps. And it’s my prayer that this year, Lent will help many of us find the space to discover meet with Jesus in a fresh and life-enhancing way.

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