2nd Sunday of Lent

‘THE TRANSFIGURATION’

“Reality or vision, this we have seen.
If it had lasted but another moment
It might have held for ever! But the world
Rolled back into its place, and we are here,
And all that radiant kingdom lies forlorn,
As if it had never stirred; no human voice
Is heard among its meadows,but it speaks
To itself alone,alone it flowers and shines
And blossoms for itself while time runs on”. (1)

Thus writes the Scottish Poet Edwin Muir (1887-1959) in the concluding verses of his poem ‘The Transfiguration’. His words reflect the spontaneous outburst of the apostle Peter who said “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you,one for Moses and one for Elijah”. Which one of us would not wish to hold on to the moment of ecstasy, the moment of beauty,the moment of revelation, when all is clear and we are removed from the turmoil of everyday living?

The purpose of the Transfiguration account is different,however. In Matthew’s gospel, it is placed immediately after Jesus predicts his passion, suffering and death which will take place on another mountain. The agony and the ecstasy are two parts of the one story. He must die in order to rise again and transform the world and the life and death of each person in it.

How difficult for Peter, and for all of us, to accept this reality. During this Season of Lent we follow Jesus in a particular way, on the Way of the Cross, and all that signifies in the life of those who believe in Him. The cross is raised,not on the Mount of Transfiguration, but on the Mount of Calvary. On Good Friday we venerate the wood of the cross, the instrument of our salvation. It is only when we recognise in the crucified one who takes all suffering and sin into Himself and remains faithful to God and to the whole of the human race, do we get some glimpse into the meaning of suffering in our own lives.

For so many people, suffering is a waste of time and nothing good can be said of it. We question the very existence of God when individual suffering and the suffering of whole peoples become too much to bear. “Where is God in the midst of this suffering?” we often ask. “Here,” says Jesus with arms outstretched on the cross. Our veneration of the cross,our embrace of the wood of the cross, is our affirmation that no time is wasted in which God is served. The service of God is the sanctification of time. And,perhaps,it is when we are laid low, when we are powerless, when we have time on our hands, that the grace of God is available to us in a special way. The traditional devotion of “offering up” our suffering has a profound effect on what we have to bear.

The motto of the 11th century Carthusian Order is a very powerful one: “Stat Crux Dum Volvitur Orbis -The cross stands while the world turns” (2) This points to the contrast between the steadfastness of the cross and the busyness of the world. Cardinal Basil Hume put this in a different way when he wrote “It is only when we contemplate the cross (in our own lives) that the cross of Jesus yields up its mysteries”. He himself had his Transfiguration experience in the two short months between the diagnosis of terminal cancer and his death. When the doctors first told the Cardinal of his advanced cancer, he went straight to the hospital chapel and prayed. “I had preached so often on the seven last words of Jesus from the Cross”,he said. “Now it was wonderful to find that they were such a part of me”. All during that initial period of waiting for death he found,to his delight, that his prayer was amazingly sweet,full of consolation. But then,to quote him “the curtain came down, and it was back to the darkness of faith. “But I wasn’t worried,” he said, “because I knew what was beyond the curtain”. (3).

All three synoptic gospels tell the story of the Transfiguration. It must have had a profound impact on those early Jewish followers of Jesus – not least the encounter with Moses and Elijah, personifying the teaching of the Law and the Prophets. The bright cloud which enveloped the scene evoked the ‘shekinah’ which was nothing less than the glory of God. Reminiscent,too, of the pillar of cloud which was to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt on their way to the Promised Land. At the time of the crucifixion both Matthew and Luke describe “the darkness which covered the earth” from the sixth to the ninth hour. In one way,far removed from the “bright cloud” on the Mount of the Transfiguration. Yet the same glory was being revealed – the faithful One, glorifying God in his obedience and unending love for the whole of creation.

Reality or vision, this we have seen.
If it had lasted but a moment
It might have held forever! But the world
Rolled back into its place, and we are here,
And all that radiant kingdom lies forlorn. (4)

“And we are here”. On this Second Sunday of Lent. In this church. At this unique moment in our precious lives. Preparing to enter once more into the life giving death of Jesus which we celebrate in the Paschal Mystery.

ARCHBISHOP GEORGE STACK

Footnotes:

  • ‘The Transfiguration’ by Edwin Muir. Collected Poems. Faber and Faber.
  • Carthusians of St. Bruno
  • Homily of Bishop John Crowley at the funeral of Cardinal Hume
  • ‘The Transfiguration’ by Edwin Muir. Collected Poems. Faber and Faber.

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