I VISITED an exhibition of Zimbabwean Shona sculpture recently.
Traditionally, the artist excavates a block of stone, and searches
for the potential that it hides. As he chips away with his tools,
the spirit within is slowly released, and the rock is transfigured
into a thing of beauty,a created masterpiece.
This concept is thousands of years old, going back at least to
the time of the patriarchs. Jacob rested his head on a stone
because it was a holy object, not inanimate, but with a spirit-life
of its own.
The result was a great effusion of the divine, the vision of a
ladder set up between heaven and earth, crowded with angels, and,
at its pinnacle, the shining presence of God. Abruptly, Jacob's
perceptions are realigned. "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I
did not know it."
This leads straight into the transfiguration of the Lord. The
vision took place on a high mountain, well apart from the prosaic
day-to-day affairs of the world. This is significant; for mountains
in scripture are not just rock-bound wastes and soaring peaks. They
are cloud-covered, mysterious, other-worldly places, where the
reality of God lies hidden.
The psalmist homed in on that truth, and expanded it to
incorporate the whole universe: "The heavens declare the glory of
God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork" (Psalms 19.1).
It is not all plain sailing: it is perfectly possible to treat
the world with contempt, to spurn its glory and besmirch it. The
Christian gospel, however, overrides such a shallow and ungrateful
view of creation. The transfiguration narrative implicitly demands
that we greet each new morning as a heaven-sent opportunity to view
the universe as being interwoven with the divine presence.
The message does not stop there. Not only was the mountain
bathed in holy light: the person of Christ was transfigured before
the assembled company on the mountain. This does not mean that the
disciples witnessed a conjuring trick,or an optical illusion
whereby the features of Jesus turned chalk-white and his workaday
clothes became luminous. The language is metaphorical, to describe
how the onlookers saw deep down, beneath the superficial humanity
of Christ, to the divine that lay within. What changed was not
reality, but their perception of it.
We need to apply this reappraisal to all of humanity. It is not
only Christ that we should see transfigured, but, as the Quakers
put it, we must endeavour to see "that of God in everybody".
It means, for instance, that we cannot idly dismiss civilian
deaths in war as collateral damage, or engage in conflict lightly.
Nor can there be any place for verbal or physical abuse, racial
discrimination, religious hatred, condemnation, or exclusive
theology in our thinking.
This becomes immensely difficult in the case of people who wreak
destruction, fear, genocide, and other terrible crimes on the
world. But Christ never claimed that following him would be a bed
There is a great temptation to shy away from this difficulty,
and of course there are situations when moral disapprobation is
imperative. But St Paul compels us to think again. "And we all with
unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed
into his likeness from one degree of glory to another" (2
The transfiguration of Christ presents us with a formidable
challenge. It urges us to search for and respect God's footprints
throughout creation, and to view poor, failing, feckless humanity
as infused with divine light. All that takes some doing, and a
great deal of prayer.
The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest, living in