The Heights and the Depths
Let’s imagine ourselves in Rio de Janeiro or Port of Spain in Trinidad or New Orleans as the season of Epiphany comes to an end. People will be letting their hair down in Carnival before the austerity of Lent.
There is something transgressive about Carnival.
It is a time when people dance, sing, wear flamboyant costumes and maybe do some things they won’t be telling their grannies about when they get home.
It is the feast before the fast.
As Carnival finishes on what we call Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, people pile into church to confess their sins. The following forty day are devoted to fasting and prayer.
Carnival is taking a break from the routines of life. There are other ways!
Some of you may have read some of the writing so Thomas Merton. He was a contemplative monk living in a monastery. He believed that he would be able to set himself apart from the world and just live a ‘holy’ life.
However, after 15 years in the monastery he had an extraordinary experience. He went out one day into the shopping district of Louisville just to do the chores for the monastery. He later wrote, “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers’.
He said that it was as if he was woken from a dream. The 15 years apart from the world in the monastery suddenly seemed an illusion. He realised that you cannot separate yourself from the world. It was a relief and a joy. So much so that he almost laughed out loud.
Looking at the faces of the people in the shopping district made him realise how wonderful it is to belong to the human race. If only we could all realise this.
Merton wrote, ‘There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
This morning we read of Jesus shining like the sun. He was on a mountaintop with his closest disciples, Peter, James and John. We are told that he had gone there to pray. His prayer was deep and intense. So much so that he, and his disciples are caught up in a vision of Moses and the Prophets. Jesus converses deeply with them. The representatives of the Law and the Prophets, Jesus’ own ancestral faith.
The moment is so immense that the voice of God is heard.
‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.’
Now we know who Jesus is. He is chosen – the beloved Son of a divine Father.
And we know what we are to do – we are to listen to him.
Peter shared the same instinct which had led Thomas Merton into a monastery. It is the temptation to hold onto the highs of our spiritual life.
‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’
He got it wrong.
The proper response to these spiritual moments is to pause. To stay silent, or as Merton discovered just to repress the joy of your laughter.
All of us can experience these moments of spiritual intensity. I imagine many of us will be able to describe moments in which God feels especially close - perhaps in church, perhaps out in the countryside or seashore – or on a mountaintop – or in a conversation with someone. Moments which change the direction of our lives.
These moments have been described as ‘cracked doors’ or ‘thin places’ between heaven and earth.
Moments when we want to say; ‘Master it is good for us to be here.’
Those moments stay with us. They are guides and inspirations. But they cannot keep us from the call of the everyday challenges that we face.
We meet, as we too often do these days, in dangerous times.
The events this week in the Ukraine are serious. Whilst we may feel that we can be more relaxed about the pandemic, it is not over by any means. The extreme weather we have experienced recently emphasises our concerns about climate change.
The prevailing values of our society; conspicuous consumption, the corruption of our institutions, the stark polarisation and fragmentation of our society run in direct contradiction to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
These do not feel like mountaintop days.
Harley has spent a lot of time thinking about images for our social media work. He resists the stereotype pictures which so many churches use. Check them out, lots of flowers, candles, lots of pictures of happy parishioners and friendly clergy.
And worst of all, images of a man standing on a moutiantop, with his hands raised!
religious websites, tracts, books, social media posts have people on mountains as the sun rises waving their hands in ecstasy.
Well yes it can be great on the mountaintop. You can feel exhilarated.
I have to say that I have stood on mountaintops covered in mist feeling wet and cold.
We have to be honest about the transfiguration; it doesn’t always last!
The invitation to follow Jesus is to follow him on the heights and in the depths of life.
In today’s reading, we heard of the relationship between God as Father and Jesus as God’s chosen Son.
We also hear of another father and son struggling in the valley below. This father and son are in a state of desperation. The boy has what sound like severe epileptic fits.
The father transparently loved his son, his only child, very much. It is not difficult to imagine how distressing it must have been to see the boy in such pain and in constant danger for his life.
Jesus’ disciples had failed. Even though they had been invested with power from Jesus, they were unable to do anything to help the predicament.
After Jesus had healed the boy, ‘he gave him back to his father’.
The healing was more than physical. The father was now able to be a father, to do all that was needed from him. For a Jewish father the most important duty was to teach his boy the Torah. His duty was to tell of Moses and the Prophets. A body had been healed, a relationship restored. Father and Son are together again.
Transfiguration Sunday is the hinge between the bright season of Epiphany and the purple season of Lent. We are being called to move into a period of prayer and fasting.
Perhaps we can also think of it as the hinge between the high and low moments of our spiritual life. We see this graphically in the Gospel story.
For there is a beloved Son on the mountain and a beloved son in the valley.
This church, as every church, should be a cracked door, a space where together we can come close to God. We are to be a place of prayer and a conduit through which the grace of the Gospel message can shine through.
Then we need to remember that the God we encounter in prayer and contemplation is the same God who is with us in the valley, struggling with the brokenness of our times.
Praying for peace in a world at war.
Offering healing in a broken society.
Reconciling differences between peoples.
And we remember that our call is to listen to Jesus, the one who heals even when we his disciples fail. For the shining face of Jesus is the shining face of humanity intimately bound to the divine.
Let us, like Thomas Merton, awaken ourselves to the truth that we ‘are all walking around shining like the sun.’‹ back