Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Sunday next before Lent 2018
Transfiguration and the meaning of glory
The Reverend Professor Vernon White Sub-Dean and Canon Theologian
Sunday, 11th February 2018 at 11.15 AM
God only knows exactly what happened on the hilltop in visible empirical terms. But whatever it was, its meaning was clear for our Gospel writer. Jesus was transfigured, shown in an extraordinary new light, luminous with divine glory. The actual word ‘glory’ isn’t used in the description we heard; but it was used just before, when Jesus himself had been speaking about coming soon with the ‘glory’ of his Father; and St Paul used it: it was ‘the glory of God’ which ‘shone in the face of Christ..’
What is glory?
Popularly it usually means fame. For which, I suppose, being lit up like a living light bulb is a reasonably good metaphor! But fame isn’t really its meaning here. The root meaning of the Hebrew word glory suggests something more solid and durable than fame – glory meant the real weight and worth of something or someone. In other words what was being revealed on that hilltop was the real essence of Jesus; the depths of his character; his true identity, with all masks and misunderstandings stripped away. As such he was being seen for what he really was: as God’s uniquely beloved and begotten son; the very image of God Himself, the final fulfilment of God’s purposes, a sign to show that light does always overcome darkness in the end. And he was showing this in a way that even the great prophets Moses and Elijah could not. They faded on that hilltop. Jesus did not.
Unveiling the deepest truth of something or someone - stripping away all the masks to see the deepest nature of things or people - is not something to be done lightly. It is a sacred task. Many of the masks we create for ourselves and others are for self-protection. They are a tent to shelter in. This is a deep instinct. We are all wont to create pictures of the world or masks for ourselves by the daily routines we inhabit, by the roles we adopt with other people. This is what we shelter in. And it’s not necessarily wrong. They protect us; they help us cope with the world. Without them we are hurt. Humankind cannot bear too much reality, as Eliot said. That’s why we should be careful before stripping them off.
Nevertheless there comes a time when it is necessary. And I now realize this is what much good art is doing. It is trying to make us see what is really there under the masks. I used to think of dramatists, novelists, poets, as creating pictures to entertain and shelter us from reality. Now I think most are doing the opposite: they are stripping away our pictures, not creating them, to reveal what is really real…
But what then do we see when the masks come off? What is the ultimate reality of ourselves and the world we are made to see?
For many it is the very opposite of a vision of glory. It is chaotic, a horror; only a ‘heart of darkness’ as Joseph Conrad’s celebrated novel describes it. You may know that sort of experience. When the foundations of our world have been shaken, and the pictures we’ve created of it and of ourselves fall off the walls of our shelters, what is left can seem only black and fearful. The Gospel story of Jesus himself tells of that experience too, at another point in its story. At the foot of the cross when the masks of Peter’s bravado and the pictures of Jesus as an easily triumphant king are all stripped away, what was left was just blackness: en de nux - ‘it was night’ - we’re told in St John’s Gospel.
But - here’s the point of this story of transfiguration. Although that darkness of the cross was real, it was not the deepest, reality; not the ultimate essence of Christ. What we see here at the transfiguration, as with the resurrection (of which the transfiguration was a foretaste) is an even deeper truth unveiled. The real weight of his glory was that Christ was not ultimately a forsaken failure but ‘a light which shines on in the darkness, which the darkness does not overcome’.
And what is particularly notable is where this sign of transfiguration is placed in the Gospel narrative. It’s not random. It’s placed exactly where it most needed: i.e. at one of those moments when it seemed the final reality was night. Christ had been previously fighting the horror of the world, the evil people do and the disease which strikes people randomly: he had been healing and giving hope. But then immediately before this transfiguration the bombshell had been dropped. His followers had just been told that he too, in the end, was only going to suffer and die. It was a crushing reality check, precisely one of those sickening moments when a shelter was taken away and what’s left does seem only fearful. It is at this point that the transfiguration occurred: his real glory briefly broke through, showing he was not finally to be overcome by evil.
Therein was the hope for them. It is also a sign for us all - a sign that the truly ultimate reality is glory, not darkness… To be sure, back down from that hilltop the vision does fade; doubts and difficulty return. So we put back on our masks to cope with this difficult world. Yet the sign remains. It was still given. Given at that moment when it was most needed. And that is for us all.
God only knows what exactly happened on the hilltop. But something did. And this was the meaning of it. For all the real darkness in this roller coaster of life, the deepest reality is light. It is a light which shines on in the darkness which the darkness does not overcome. That is the ultimate reality which faith sees in Christ.