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Sunday next before Lent

04 February 2021

2 Kings 2.1-12; Psalm 50 1-6; 2 Corinthians 4.3-6; Mark 9.2-9

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FOR the second Sunday in a row, Christ is revealed as the “image” (icon) of God. This is the measure to apply to all else that we learn about him. The lectionary reiterates the point to make sure that we have grasped it: through Christ, God has given us the light of knowledge (gnosis), and it is to be found not in the “essence” or “identity” of any such abstract entity, but in the actual (real, physical) person of Christ.

Rather like John the Baptist a few weeks ago, Paul goes against the majority inclination to grasp at status and power, and insists that “we preach not ourselves.” It is the strongest possible counter to an egotistical culture: “It’s all about me!” It is also a counter to a hierarchical culture: Paul could have said, “I preach Jesus Christ, and I am his chosen mouthpiece.” Instead, the true preacher is lowest on the ladder of status: “We are your slaves,” he tells the Corinthians.

The vision of the divine provided by 2 Kings 2.1-12 looks very different. Instead of transforming the meaning of being divine by revealing the exaltation of a human person, it transforms the meaning of being human by drawing a human being into the realm of the divine. It is a masterpiece of storytelling, too — especially if we don’t worry too much about the geographical logic of the journey that Elijah and Elisha undertake.

One view of how to tell a story is to surprise an audience with unexpected plot twists. It is a staple of television serials such as Line of Duty. Another looks more naïve, but is actually more subtle: to share with the audience the secret of what’s about to happen. That is what the author of 2 Kings does. He makes a point of telling his audience that the day of Elijah’s departure is at hand, then makes the players in the drama reveal it to one another. The groups of prophets who confront Elijah and Elisha on their journey keep trying to put them off; they take it as a given that the day of one’s death is something to be avoided.

On one level, this is a story about succession. How does one prophet make way for another, and ensure the continuation of that calling? Elisha assumes the mantle of Elijah, giving rise to an English expression familiar to many who have never heard of either prophet.

Elisha’s cry “The chariot[s] of Israel and its horsemen!” prompts a few questions, not least whether there is one chariot or several. Going by ancient Jewish scholars, it is an honorific title for Elijah as the protector of the nation. A modern commentator draws a parallel with Psalm 68.4,17, in which God himself, with his heavenly host of horsemen, is the “chariot of Israel”. One thing is clear: this is the second bodily ascension into heaven in Judaeo-Christian history. Enoch was the first (Genesis 5.24); Jesus (Luke 24.51; Acts 1.9) and (according to some traditions) Mary are still to come.

The Revised Common Lectionary sets the gospel of the Transfiguration for this Sunday to focus our devotion on the true person of Christ. Not the good man only, or the divine Son only, but both. This is at odds with the sceptical approach of Bultmann and others, who argue that it is a reconstituted resurrection narrative, and so represents a transposition rather than a transfiguration. That seems an improbably complex, as well as presumptuous, thing for Mark to have done with his “good news of . . . the Son of God”.

Peter, James, and John glimpsed a truth sufficient to sustain a life’s discipleship (not without a few pitfalls). The rest of us see it through their eyes, with all the self-questioning that encounters with divine truth awake in us. It makes me think of a conversation in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings between Gandalf and Frodo about the Elf-lord Glorfindel, in which Frodo’s near-death experience instils clarity of vision: “You saw him for a moment as he is upon the other side.”

Whether or not this echo was intended by Tolkien (who was a Roman Catholic), it shows us that we can see people only with the vision that we possess at any given moment. We should never assume that what is on the surface is the “real”, or the “whole”, person.

Forthcoming Events

26 January 2022
Book launch: Entering the Twofold Mystery
Author Erik Varden in conversation with Sarah Coakley.

1 February 2022
Cathedrals and social justice
Book free tickets for this Church Times webinar with Mark Russell, Anne Richards and Adrian Dorber.

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