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Feckless humanity seen in the divine light

01 August 2014

David Bryant considers the message of the transfiguration


Infused with divine light:The Transfigurationby Fra Angelico

Infused with divine light:The Transfigurationby Fra Angelico

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 of roses.

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 Corinthians 3.18).

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 Yorkshire.

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