Sunday next before Lent 19.2.12. Mark 9.2-9 Transfiguration

11 02 2012

Transfiguration

Last week the theme was ‘Creation’; this week it is ‘Transfiguration’. A week ago I was preaching at Magdalene College Cambridge about Michael Ramsey in their series on ‘Magdalene Saints’. In a change from my ususal practice I am adding a long section of that sermon to this post.  It is not usable in another context (if it was it would not  be in the spirt of a Sermon Starter) but it might set some thoughts going.

Mark 9.2-9

2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Reflections and Questions

‘Peter, James and John’ v2. The same crew who were to  be with with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 13.33).  They fall asleep on that occasion. Might they have been in a daze this time?  What do you think actually happened?

‘Moses and Elijah’ v 4. More company.  How did these men’s lives end?  How do they connect with mountain tops?

‘Three dwellings’ v 10. We tend to think of this as typical Petrine clumsiness or as fear of the future raising its head. But do we ever ask ‘why three’? Why one each?

‘There came a voice’ v7   And so we once again end with a link. This time to baptism (see Mark1.11).  Is that just one of those things or does it get us closer to the meaning of either event – or perhaps to the nature of revelation?

From the Sermon ‘Troubled by Glory’ preached by Stephen Cherry in the Chapel of Magdalene College, Cambridge 29 January 2012

Owen Chadwick tells us in his biography that when Michael Ramsey was asked near the end of his life which book he was most glad to have written he answered without hesitation,  ‘The Transfiguration’.

It was published in 1949. Ramsey had lived through the war in Durham, an unlikely Air Raid Warden, who spent many nights as a fire-watcher on the roof of the Cathedral.  On one occasion he set about evacuating all the properties when the ‘all clear’ was sounded.  There were excitements but it was mostly monotony – or to look at in another way – an opportunity to mull over big and deep questions.  During the blitz most of the stock of his previous publications was destroyed.  And as a theologian he might have reflected more than once of on the point, purpose and meaning of writing and publication.

I have wondered whether his book on the transfiguration was, in a way, his gospel.  His careful attempt to communicate a truth so profound and yet so connected with everyday life that it is worth calling Good News.That he was a man with an evangelical mission seems undoubted. He made a difference; he made connections wherever he went. He appointed the first ever non-Anglican to the theology department in Durham – C.K. Barrett who served there his whole life and who died just last year.  Ramsey changed things. He rushed about. He would arrive just in time for Cathedral services, pulling on his surplice as he trotted out of a lecture theatre, and still making his concluding remarks as he left. When he became a Fellow of Magdalene himself he both admired and challenged the somewhat autocratic Master of the day.  He became famous for his stand against injustice in Rhodesia and South Africa in 1960s.

And at the same time he was seen as saintly and mystical – quite distracted by other-worldly matters, not overly concerned by this-worldly concerns.  But he was not a passive, quietist contemplative type. People might have thought so because of his disciplines of prayer and his tendency towards silence. He was not convinced that conversation was a particularly edifying pastime, feeling that it was just as well to be with people silently.  People say that no insult was intended, but I expect that it was sometimes taken.  He must have seemed a hidden man: hidden behind his size and his eyebrows and his strange repetitions and ‘yes.. yes.. yes..’ or ‘mmmm, errrr, ummmm, ,errrr silence ummm, errr, ummmm’  and so on, sometimes for quite a while, apparently.

I heard him preach once in this Chapel. It was in the 1980s.  I can only remember one part of it. He spoke about Judas leaving the Upper Room and stepping out into the night.  ‘It was indeed night’ he said, with real gravitas.  And I began to realise the way in which the Bible is more than words. That it is images and symbols as well. And I quickly began to notice them myself, to read the Bible more richly.   Which is, I suppose, the point of education:  to open the eyes of others, so that they can read more intelligently and see more clearly what is before them.

And so it is not so surprising, perhaps, that a professorial Bishop should find that the Transfiguration is at the heart of the gospel.  The strange story speaks of Jesus being bathed in a light which is bright and yet unearthly. It is uncreated light.  And it is in and by such light that the glory of God is perceived.

But while the story of transfiguration is set on mount Tabor (though Ramsey’s book says it is set on Hermon) there is another hill in the New Testament which the evangelist John – who tells no transfiguration story – points us to as a place of glory. It is Golgotha, the place of the skull, the green hill far away without a city wall.

Matthew and Mark see this as a place of desolation and darkness. Luke sees it as place of compassion and forgiveness. John sees it as glory and accomplishment.  For him it is a place of fulfilment and completion; a place where the story of incarnation finds its end and where the story of resurrection and Holy Spirit find their beginning.

Ramsey was a man of the cross as well as of transfiguration.  The light in which he put his trust, the true light, was not a happy fairy light on a Christmas tree but the indescribable light and energy which comes not from the completion of human projects but from the transfiguration of suffering evil and darkness.

In a sermon on the day of celebration we held in Durham to mark the installation of the Ramsey transfiguration window, his former chaplain Canon John Andrew gave us some an insight into the anguish the great man sometimes experienced when wrestling with an intractable issue of Church or state or a sense of the suffering of others or maybe with simple doubt. But he also spoke of ‘the transfiguration method’, which he says he learnt by living close to Ramsey. It is the method by which you seek to see the world and others in the light of Christ. He told of how his recovery from very serious injury after a mugging in New York was facilitated by this method. It was a transfigured view of things that he found it in himself to forgive his attacker, and from that forgiveness flowed healing of body which surprised the medical professionals who were caring for him. Some saw it as a miracle.

Such graceful change has an aesthetic as well as an ethical dimension. It makes us wonder. And we vicariously delight in what seems like the triumph of another human’s better nature.  Maybe this is the true light; light cannot be overcome by the darkness of evil. Maybe it is the light of which old Simeon spoke that is both the ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’ and ‘the glory of thy people Israel.’

Ramsey’s life brought light to many and it continues to shine today.  The beautiful window – which you must head off to Durham to see at the earliest opportunity – contains a number of small scenes and in one there is a group of three pilgrims. One pilgrim has a distinctly and deliberately Ramsey-esque bearing.  Every day people delight to find him, to see light pouring through him as sunlight is transformed by glass in a beautiful metaphor of the glory of God transfiguring human suffering, desolation and degradation.

Another Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, once said of Ramsey that ‘his happiest days were spent in Durham: close to Cuthbert and Bede. They were days when he was the don who said his prayers untroubled by pomp or glory or position’.

Although his ashes are in the cloisters of Canterbury Cathedral,  Ramsey’s Transfiguration window is very close to the burial place of Cuthbert – that most reluctant and much-loved of bishops, and another man of silence, struggle and sanctity.  But I want to conclude by suggesting that Runcie’s words are not quite right. Ramsey untroubled by glory when a Canon Professor? Surely not.  He was indeed troubled by glory as the war raged and then again as the country emerged into the poverty of rationing and recovery. And it in in that connection between glory and suffering that transfiguration is to be found, and where truly Good News is seen, spoken and shared.

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