Friday, 6 August 2010

Transfiguration 2010: Climbing the mountain


Why do people climb mountains? You know it costs about £50,000 to climb Everest these days - sounds a bit steep to me. And surely it's more comfortable to stroll around here below on flat ground. But many of us do like to rise to the challenge. Perhaps it's the exertion, the exercise, the feeling of achievement when you get to the top, the beauty of the views or the quality of the cool air above. But there's also that headiness, that giddiness, that strange feeling of being in a world removed, where earth almost touches heaven. And I suppose this is why so many great human traditions over the millennia have treated their mountains as sacred space: Zion, Olympus, Horeb, Sinai, Athos, Ararat, Fuji, to name a few.
A couple of years ago, my wife and I climbed the three peaks of Dewa Sanzan in Japan, sacred to the Shinto tradition, each with a shrine at its peak.
I remember ascending the countless stone steps through the tall cedar forests that covered the face of the first, worn smooth by hundreds of years of pilgrimage, small shrines dotted about on the sides of the track. It was a long way to the top, and the clouds got there before us. We groped our way through a cold, damp, dazzling whiteness, disorienting, even weird, a world apart from the humid heat and sun below. Our only guide was the squawking refrain of old Japanese instruments which we followed to find the temple's vermilion gates gradually looming from the mist. Inside the lamplit dark, a mountain shaman performed a sacred dance wearing the multicoloured coat of his order, a conch horn around his neck and a sword at his side. You could see why they thought the mountain was sacred.
That time, there were plenty of other people around, and a temple to take shelter in. But I've been on the top of more remote mountains when the clouds roll in, and when they do, you're pretty stuck. You struggle to climb any further, if you haven't already reached the top. If you're trying to cross that mountain to get somewhere else, there's no use going back the way you came, even if you can. Nor can you plunge forward blindly, not knowing where you're going, hoping you won't lose your footing on the rocks and rather terminally spoil your day. And you can't just wait forever up there in the cold, hoping that the cloud will pass, especially as night draws in. So it's a bit of a Catch 22.
I think there's a danger of getting trapped in clouds like these not just on top of real mountains, but also as we try to cross the many mountains that pop up in our lives. They may be mountains we're trying to cross together. Take the current political situation. As we stumble across the current mountain of recession, unemployment, societal breakdown, we hear predictable voices: those on the extreme Right who want to go back the way we came, turn the clock back to the 1950s, say, as if everything were better before we started climbing. Then there are those on the extreme Left who want to rush blindly forward and escape from the past to some new, utopian dream: or even better, steam roll the mountain flat and forge a brave new world. And third, there the extreme liberals who just stay sitting in the clouds, the 'I'm all right, Jacks,' blissfully ignoring what goes on either side of the mountain as long as they can carry on with their own lives. This is just one mountain that we are all trying to cross.
But the danger may be even stronger when we're trying to cross mountains alone, the mountains of our personal lives. I think it's fair to say that there aren't many people without some quite mountainous problem: childhood traumas, poverty, addiction, broken relationships, guilty secrets that gnaw away. But as Christians, I think we're particularly vulnerable to these. Because there's the temptation to think that with God's healing to repair us, we can go back down the mountain, turn back the clock, and things will be just as they were. Or there's a temptation to say, I'm baptised, I'm forgiven, the past's just history: I can run away down the mountain and leave it all behind. Lastly, there's a temptation to retreat into prayer - but do nothing: to resign from the world and the problems it brings, sitting on the mountaintop and meditating our lives away.
But God gives us a different way to cross these mountains. Not regression to a pristine past, not charging forward at whatever cost to a future of our own making, not quietism, passive retreat from the world - but Transfiguration. The Transfiguration narrative in Luke does look back and forward: back with God's words, 'this is my beloved Son,' to His words at Jesus' baptism. Forwards with the cloud that descends, that dazzles Peter and the disciples on the mountaintop, to that cloud which Jesus will eventually pass through to ascend into heaven. But when the cloud passes at the Transfiguration, the glory of the Lord that shone so brightly, bright enough even to burn through the cloud: the glory of the Lord has faded from Jesus' face.
Peter, John and James do not find a new Jesus, a super-Jesus, but the same man Jesus that they followed from the start: a man with understandable anxieties about taking the cup His Father has given Him. They do not find a warrior Jesus who will fight a new path to the future Kingdom, erasing the past, destroying the old, and leaving a trail of dead in His wake. They do not find a mystic Jesus, like some other religions' holy men, passing away peacefully on the mountaintop having achieved His own salvation. Not a Jesus who ignores His past, who eliminates His future, or who ignores the present. But the same Jesus who was born of Mary and rejected by his peers, who will still have to suffer and die on the Cross; who even now has fears and doubts.
But while he remains the same Jesus, He is also changed: and this is not transformation into something completely different, not transcendence of his flesh to become purely spiritual, but Transfiguration. His humanity, and the suffering that comes with it, is not destroyed or risen above. The transfiguring power of the glory of God took what Jesus always was - human, afraid, suffering - and brought out from within that humanity the perfect Image in which it was made: the Image of the Son of God.
There is a Buddhist concept that I think can help us understand better this idea of Transfiguration. It's called 'Buddha nature,' the idea that the material world that we live in is in fact one with the Buddha, if only we could see it truly. Now this is different from Christian belief, because we do not believe that the material realm is one with God, but that He created it. But we do believe that He made the whole cosmos in His image, that it in some way shares in Him. So take a wooden carving of the Buddha. The Buddhist might say that the true shape of this piece of wood is not the tree that it came from, but the Buddha image. So, when the sculptor carves the image, he is not destroying the true shape of the wood to make something new from it: rather, he is bringing it to its proper shape, the shape that it was always intended to have, and the shape that in fact it always did have, hiddenly: the shape of its Buddha-nature. If you go to the British Museum and look at some Japanese wood carvings, look out for the way the artist uses the natural lines and defects of the wood as detail for the statue. I think this is something like Transfiguration. As Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote, 'gratia non tollit naturam, sed perficit': 'grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.' Transfiguration isn't about staying with what you've got, or about getting rid of it and making something completely new, but about working with what is already there and making it what it always really is.
The Transfiguration is not just about Jesus. It's about His disciples, too, and so about us. Back in our Gospel, he led Peter, John and James up the mountain for a reason: to be witnesses, participants, even. As the glory of the Lord shines from His face, through the cloud, it is reflected in their own. With Moses and Elijah, they see God face to face and yet live, changed but still human. Transfiguration is not about making things easy, and they too still have to carry on walking the Way of the Cross. But they, unlike Jesus, do not where the Way leads. They do not know the suffering and humiliation that is to come. In this, they are very much like us. Like us, they are left groping in the dazzling brightness of the cloud. But like us, they have the light of Christ to guide them. In today's epistle, S. Peter himself describes that light as 'a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts.' And we walk with St Peter and all the saints, with Christ leading us along the way: Christ who does not take away the hard mountains that make us who we are, does not destroy them, but transfigures them, helps us to carry them.
You can't run away from who you are.
You can't magic away what you've done.
You can't ignore the past and pretend it doesn't matter, because you are made of your past, and it does. Christ may wash away our sins, but you know as well as I do that it's not as easy as that: they're still a part of us. All we can do is trust: trust in Christ to take what we've done and what we are, everything we've done, everything we are, warts and all, and make us into something better: to turn His glowing face towards us so that even our darkest parts shine with His glory to all who behold us. All we have to do is what the Father commands: 'this is my beloved son: listen to Him.'
And this is what the Son says: “Take, eat. Take, drink. Come to the table, share with me in the glory of our Father. Take this perfected, transfigured food: my body and my blood to sustain you on the journey. It will not be easy. But follow me, and I will walk with you over the mountains: to a Kingdom where mountains, burdens, suffering will be no more.”

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