Preached at S. Mary’s, Bourne Street, on Quinquagesima, 2020
‘Jesus was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun.’
The other day I made a mistake. I shouldn’t have done it. I regret it. But it’s true. I logged on to Twitter.
I logged on to Twitter and I saw a message posted by an atheist website called Atheist Forum. It read as follows:
Christianity: The belief that one God created a universe 13.79 billion years old, 93 billion light years in diameter, consisting of over 200 billion galaxies, each containing an average of 200 billion stars, only to have a personal relationship with you.
To which I, along with many others, thought ‘Yes, that’s an excellent summary of what Christianity is all about.’
God created the entire universe, impossibly, incomprehensibly large. God created everything that exists. In comparison with everything that exists, we are as nothing. We are immeasurably, incomprehensibly small. And yet we matter. We matter immensely. God gives everything in order to have that relationship with us.
There is a contrast. On the one side is the immensity of God, full of glory and power and majesty. On the other side is us, small, weak.
This contrast is at the heart of today’s gospel reading, the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus.
Up to this point in the story, the disciples have known Jesus as a human being. A human being of wisdom and insight, and who is accompanied by miracles, but a human being nonetheless. They have slowly come to realise who he is. In the last chapter, we hear the confession of St Peter: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God’.
Peter makes the confession and then gets presented with this extraordinary vision. For a moment, Jesus’ divinity is not veiled, not hidden. For a moment, Jesus shines with the uncreated light. Unlike Moses of old, this light is not a reflection of divine glory that fades away. The light is Christ’s own light and does not fade. For a moment, Peter, James and John see who Jesus is. They see God in the midst of creation.
This, of course, is what Atheist Forum just can’t understand. That God could both create the vastness of the universe and care enough to become part of it.
In the Transfiguration of Jesus this is revealed. Divinity shines forth on earth. It shines in everything he does, of course: this moment is only the moment when we are most easily able to perceive it. God dwells among us. God’s light shines among us.
The Transfiguration is a kind of triple revelation. It is a revelation of who Jesus is: he is God. It is a revelation about God, and about how much God cares about us.
But it is also something more. It is a revelation of what we are like, or rather, what we can be like. Divine light pours out of Jesus, just as divine love and divine wisdom pour out of him at every moment of his earthly life.
In the life of Jesus, and in particular in the Transfiguration, it is shown that all these divine attributes can exist in a human being. Divine light, love, wisdom and all the rest belong to Jesus by nature. They can belong to us as well. Not by nature, of course, but by grace. By God’s sovereign, unmerited gift, we can shine with the same light. We can be filled with divine love and divine wisdom. What Jesus is by nature, we can become by grace.
In Jesus, the human and the divine are united. God’s divine light shone in his human flesh. It can shine in ours as well. The Transfiguration reveals who we can be, by God’s help.
This is, I think, why this Gospel is given to us as we prepare to dive into Lent. The coming season is not about fasting, or giving things up, or mortification of the flesh, or extra prayers, worthy though each of those things may be. No, it is about holiness. It is about becoming who we are meant to be. It is about training ourselves and inviting God’s grace in, so that we might shine with God’s light. It is about devoting time, attention and prayer to becoming Christ-like.
The Transfiguration offers us a vision of what we can be.
We have a few days before the beginning of Lent. I suggest you spend at least some time thinking about how you might observe the season, what disciplines and fasts you might undertake, to bring you closer to God. But be careful. It is easy for Lenten disciplines to become a matter of pride: ‘By my efforts, by working very hard, I can achieve this task.’ You can’t be perfect, even if you try oh so hard. If we are to be holy, it is only by God’s grace, by God’s help. If your discipline is all about your own efforts, it is not worth doing. Our holiness, our path to perfection, is by God’s help.
So consider your prayer life. Consider making your confession. Consider what you can do to bring yourself closer to God, what you can do to help yourself rely on God.
And God will transform you. God will transfigure you. You, too, by God’s grace, will shine with the uncreated light. And God will speak those words about you too. ‘This is my beloved son, this is my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased.’