Sunday 26th February 2017, Sunday next before Lent, morning

Matthew 17:1-8

by Revd Chris Palmer

About twelve years ago I went on retreat in rural Leicestershire. It was at a beautiful old retreat house at the bottom of a steep hill. There was no mobile phone signal. The countryside was farming countryside, beautiful hedgerows, and winding lanes. It was far from any main road. It was early July, and the weather was glorious: warm and sunny, but with a breeze to stop it getting suffocating. But it was still warm enough to sit out comfortably well into the evening.

I spent the first two days of the retreat trying to work out what God was saying to me. This was a rather tortuous mental exercise and felt somewhat unfruitful. I’ve still got the notes of the retreat where I wrote, ‘How do I feel? There is some frustration. Some annoyance that I can’t make a break through, don’t receive some insight’. I was ready to affirm that hearing God in this way was a gift – so can’t be presumed upon – but it was a gift I rather wanted.

The person who was directing my retreat suggested I might do something different from the rather cerebral, thinking-it-out kind of prayer that I was indulging in. She wanted me to take some clay and make something out of it – reflecting on the story of Jeremiah visiting the potters house. So that evening I went out into the garden and – sitting on the grass, seeing the surrounding, feeling the ground and the breeze – I made clay figures: leaves, birds, and this little clay pot. And as I did so I sang snatches of songs from the psalms. I stopped striving to figure out what God was saying, and just enjoyed the moment.

I don’t think I perceived what was happening at the time. But when I went to later to write up the prayer time, I was aware that something in me had profoundly shifted. I had discovered joy in being, in giving up the contorted attempt to force God to speak. And one other thing. In the next 24 hours, suddenly everything in my surroundings felt utterly radiant, alive with the goodness of God, and I was very aware of my surroundings and other people, as if they were filled with glory. I wrote, ‘I am at ease. Nurtured. Alive. Completely enjoying the moment – here, today. Content, pleased to be exposed to God’s gaze. Not recognising anything new, but just being present. Grounded. In touch’

I tell you this at some length not because it was anything remarkable – many people have had such experiences in prayer. In fact something like this is quite common place as a spiritual experience of those who really give space and attention to meditation or prayer. But I say it, because that sense that the world was radiant and filled with glory speaks to the Gospel story of Transfiguration, in which the disciples see the glory of Christ – or I should say ‘the glory of God in the face of Jesus’, as St Paul says.

Clearly the story is one of some kind of vision. But I don’t think it’s really helpful to see it as a moment whose meaning is distinct from the rest of Jesus being, as if he’s glorious in this moment and not otherwise. The Transfiguration reveals what is true of Jesus always and everywhere, that he is alive with the glory of God, that God’s radiance and splendour saturate him. And it is only the blindness of our eyes, the blinkeredness of our preoccupations, of our anxieties, temptations, or anger that stop us seeing this brightness all the time. It’s as if at the Transfiguration God opened the eyes of these disciples to what was always true, but they usually failed to see.

But I don’t think that the glory and splendour of the transfiguration apply to Jesus alone. But also to all human being and the whole of God’s creation. In a study of the Transfiguration written in the late 1940s, Michael Ramsey, later Archbishop of Canterbury, compares the Eastern and Western Christian understandings of Transfiguration and salvation. He says that for Western Christians salvation has been a moral and ethical thing: we are made good – forgiven, justified, sanctified. For Eastern Christians salvation is about participation in the life and so in the glory of God. The Transfiguration reveals the glory in which God is inviting each person to participate; it reflects the world as God intended it to be, but hidden from view because of human sin, and restored through God’s redeeming work.

And in God’s saving purposes, it’s not just that God invites each person to share his glory individually, but is radiating and restoring the whole created order to glory. One Orthodox theologian writes, ‘the world is thereby permeated by the radiance of the celestial glory, although as yet in hidden form, and has attained to a new and high worth; for it has already taken unto itself the germ of immortality.’ [1]

I was tempted to write that the world is restored to its original glory. But I think that’s wrong, because one of the enduring themes of Christian theology is that the glory of salvation is even greater than the glory of God’s first creation, as if human sin, far from impeding God’s work, has in fact given the space for God’s grace to be all the more richly known.

There is a sense, therefore, in which the goal of the spiritual life isn’t to achieve some spiritual goal. I think that’s the mistake I was making in screwing up my mind to perceive God’s meaning. Rather the goal of the spiritual life is to perceive what is already true, that the world – and each of us – is filled with the glory of God. To recognise this is to revel in the deep worth of God’s creation and the radiant wonder of our own being; it is to rise above the prosaic, drab, and reductionist perception we often have of ourselves and others, and become amazed at the goodness and grace of God shining for and through each of us. We become luminous to the eyes of faith, not with a light we can claim as a personal virtue, but with the light and glory of God.

This radiance allows us to see even the most traumatic situation or troubled thinking in a new light. After all, the Gospels also tell us that the glory of Christ is seen most strongly on the cross. But it takes the light of faith to recognise this. That’s what I discovered: my own attempts to strive for God’s meaning counted for nothing next to God’s own enlightenment that comes as gift.

I’m going to finish with a famous poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins – about God’s glory in creation:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; 
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; 
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; 
    And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent; 
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went 
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent 
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.


[1] See Michael Ramsey, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ, pp 135-40, and, for the quotation, p 138.