In my church today we celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration. There is a lot of debate about why the story of the Transfiguration [we used Mark 9.2-9 today] appears in the synoptic gospels and indeed where the Feast of the Transfiguration should occur in the church’s calendar, now or in August. Part of that debate is about the sense we make of the story, how it communicates to us today. The story has a simple truth. It is not about a distant God thundering from the heavens. There is great tenderness in this story. Great holiness. Holiness is a characteristic of God. This holiness expresses itself in self-giving. God takes delight in Jesus and when we gain a greater understanding of this delight, we gain a little more insight into God’s heart. In the words of the 1st Letter of John, ‘we love because God loved us first’ [4.19]. Creation is God’s gift given to us in love so I want to explain why I think it is important that we should cherish this gift.
We are approaching the season of Lent and in Lent we are called on to repent; to acknowledge what we have done wrong and how, directly or indirectly, we have dealt unjustly with our sisters and brothers across the world; and what part we have played in damaging God’s creation. But Lent is also a period of renewal. In Old English, the word meant Spring and comes from its Germanic root for the word long, because in Spring the days visibly lengthen. So Lent is a chance to renew our priorities, reorder our lives, to begin again, in the reconciling love and grace of God.
We know that Jesus enjoyed the beauty of the natural world; that he was knowledgable about the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, about ploughing, sowing and harvesting; all this is to be found in his teaching and parables. He taught in the countryside and by the lake in Galilee. He was at home in the deserted places where he could be alone with God and pray. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has gone with Peter, James and John “up a high mountain……And he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” And the voice of God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” God is declaring his love for his Son.
Ascent is a metaphor widely used in the Christian tradition. It’s a symbolic expression that tells the story of the upward journey of the soul to God. In medieval thought, the idea of ascent became an allegory for a movement within, when the Spirit within you connects with God’s Spirit. The Romantic Movement in the 19th century externalised what stimulated the human spirit. Naturalists like John Muir and Henry Thoreau had a rich and ambiguous sense of awe about mountain landscapes. Poets, composers and painters revelled in the incomparable greatness of nature. The historian William Cronon says that they witnessed God “on the mountaintop, in the chasm, in the waterfall, in the thundercloud” [Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, 1996, p.73]. For these new naturalists and adventurers, to climb a mountain was an achievement of will against gravity. As vision increased with altitude, a spiritual dimension gave a new perspective of the whole earth, something beyond the perspective of the view, to a place where it was possible to understand the earth’s vastness, its mystery and beauty, expressed in the ‘doctrine of the sublime’ [ibid].
In our modern age we are in awe of the the power and achievement of modern science and technology. As our technologies evolve into more complex realities, possibly threatening realities, there has developed an almost religious hope, a reverence even, that like God technology is to be “loved for itself, apart from its fitness for human life and purpose” [Bronislaw Szerszynski, Nature Technology and the Sacred, 2008, p.63]. This has become almost messianic technological hope for the future that will usher in a better reordering of humankind. This too has become an ascent of the mountain, but now the objective is to tame God and finally replace God.
Christian scriptures inspire the changes we want to see, but do not hide the realities we need to accept. We want to safeguard our sense of the sacred, savouring our relationship with God. That is why Peter wanted to stay on the mountain. He wanted to hold on to his expectations of Jesus. To savour the moment and perhaps hold on to this moment, in this place, for ever. Many of us have experienced that high moment in our lives when we have been transformed as a result of getting a glimpse of God breaking into our lives. Or we may have witnessed someone living life so intensely, so joyously that it seemed that light radiated from their face. This is transfiguration.
Paul Santmire explores in his book, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology, 1985] the ambiguity of Christian thought in its attitude towards ecology. He quotes the 19th century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, “Nature, the world, has no value, no interest for Christians. The Christian thinks only of himself and the salvation of his soul” [p.3]. There is some truth in this statement in that if people see themselves only in relationship to God, they will tend not to see themselves in community with God’s creation. Yet a spirituality that focuses on the community of all creatures may also be regarded as a partial vision. We need an integrated spirituality, one that is centred on the healing work of Christ who is bringing into being the saving process of a new Heaven and a new Earth. Santmire describes two motifs, the “spiritual motif” and the “ecological motif” which arise out of what he calls three “root metaphors”, the metaphor of “ascent”, the metaphor of “fecundity,” the metaphor of “migration to a good land”. When we climb up the path of the mountain are we always looking straight ahead? Do we not pause for breath and turn round to see where we have come from? To see the fertile land below in every dimension, spiritually as well as materially? Then we become aware of the rich tapestry of earth’s beauty and perhaps the sense of God’s immanence in the world.
Christian discipleship is not about turning one’s back on the world and turning towards God. It’s not about rising above the world towards some ethereal realm. Transfiguration is about change. It is about embracing a new ethical relationship not only with other human beings but with the natural world as well, to commune with it in new ways. So if we join Jesus in going back down the mountain, what will be the direction of our travel? Are we prepared for this process, an ongoing commitment to transformation? A commitment that embraces honesty, integrity and care for others and God’s creation?
We face an crisis of existence that cannot be resolved politically. This much is clear from the ineffective climate change conferences that have been held regularly since the mid-1990’s. Our future is precariously balanced between hope and disaster. We are now threatened by swiftly moving changes to our environment about which we are painfully ignorant. We are heading into a ‘perfect storm’. So the coming season of Lent, gives us the opportunity to lament the damage that has been done, leading to a transformation of heart and mind that will provide example and moral leadership. Only this kind of vital spiritual response to deal with the ecological crisis we are facing, and the restraints on human life that it will impose will provide us with wisdom for our global future and shalom in God’s creation.
God’s vision goes beyond minor lifestyle changes that are well within our comfort zones. We proclaim a ‘green gospel’ of tree planting, recycling and solar, wind and tidal energy. ‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’ is our mantra, but we recycle because it is a useful, profitable or beneficial thing to do. We need to do more than this. We must speak out on behalf of creation. For too long we have accepted violence against creation and against one another. We must have a compassionate anger that energises action for environmental justice. And must ensure that God’s justice is brought to all those who are most in need. For all creation, solidarity with all its creatures.
The dazzling light of the Transfiguration shines in our faces. We are not without hope and confidence. Creation is God’s gift. Like the gift of his Son, made in love. And we have been commissioned as co-creators in the interrelationship between God, humanity, and the natural world. We have to give voice to the glory of God in the beauty of creation. We are the eyes that see the divine splendour in creation. We are the heart that beats for the love of God’s creation.