The Spiritual Selfie isn’t Helfie

The feast of the Transfiguration goes back to the early fourth century, when St Gregory the Illuminator substituted it for a pagan celebration of Aphrodite under the title Vartavarh (Roseflame). He kept the old name for the Christian feast because ‘Christ opened his glory like a rose on Thabor.’ It is an arresting image. When we read the gospel of the Transfiguration on this Second Sunday of Lent (Mark 9. 2–10), roses are usually nowhere to be seen. There are just bare branches, with a few little reddish buds showing where the new growth will come. The analogy with Lent is embarrassingly obvious. Here we are, trying to open ourselves to the grace of conversion but apparently plunging deeper and deeper into a sense of failure and sin. The promise of future growth may be there, but one has to look hard to find it; and in any case, we’re always being told that we need to take our gaze off ourselves and focus on Jesus instead. The spiritual selfie isn’t helfie.

While I agree with that, I think we may need to nuance things a little. The old practice of a daily examination of conscience, going over the events of the day and asking ourselves not so much what we did or didn’t do as where we placed our desire, what we wanted so much that it became the wellspring of our thoughts, words and deeds, is a good check on slipping into indifference. But today’s gospel asks more than that. It asks us to look hard and see only Jesus. That means seeing Jesus in ourselves as well as others, of having such a huge reverence for him that we simply cannot choose sin because to do so would be to profane his image in us. I have always loved the collect for today, with its invitation to feast interiorly on the Word — such a stark contrast with the fasting Lent lays upon us. The liturgy of the day piles paradox upon paradox, but the greatest of all is the fact that God became man and we, creatures of clay, now are filled with hope of the divine glory. The true selfie is all around us, ‘lovely in limbs not his’.

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Glimpses of Glory

The feast of the Transfiguration is shot through with light and darkness, glory and mystery. Whatever happened on Tabor, we feel its effect still. How many of us have wanted to lift up our eyes and see ‘only Jesus’ evermore? But just as we ascend the mountain in faith, so we must come down again in obedience and willingness to ‘work out our salvation in fear and trembling’. Our business is in the plain, where we must face the ordinariness of life. It is important, however, never to forget the little glimpses of glory allowed us, those moments of transfiguration with a small ‘t’ which let us see into the heart of things and slowly transform our understanding. Today we are confronted by the mystery of God’s glory revealed in human form. It happened once on Tabor, in the person of Jesus; and it happens daily in all those we meet, and in the face we see in the mirror, too. Isn’t that matter for wonder and thanksgiving as well as awe?

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Transfiguration 2012

On 6 August 2012 NASA scientists successfully landed its rover robot Curiosity on Mars. Amid the rejoicing over such a stupendous feat darker memories surface, for on 6 August 1945 the U.S.A. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima; on 9 August 1945 they dropped another on Nagasaki (observed by Leonard Cheshire, V.C.). It seems that in modern times this great feast of the Transfiguration is always to be marked with the colour of blood. Exploration of the Red Planet is a more acceptable use for nuclear technology than the destruction wreaked in 1945, but the juxtaposition of these events with the feast of the Transfiguration strikes me as thought-provoking.

What is it about the Transfiguration that captures our imagination? For myself, it is that combination of light and silence in a dazzling darkness on the mountainside; the bafflement of the disciples; the strange intensity of the revelation of Christ’s glory. It is almost as if there were something of a nuclear explosion on Tabor. But this extraordinary revelation, this glimpse of the Godhead, leads inexorably to Christ’s utter self-giving on the Cross. It is salvific. Historians argue, and will continue to argue, whether the use of atomic weapons was in some way necessary to end the Second World War: a ‘lesser’ evil to prevent a greater evil continuing. So, parallel or parody, who would dare to say?

The exploration of Mars may seem less overtly political, less likely to involve complex moral decisions, but it is not value-free. The decision to spend money and resources on this project rather than another is a choice with implications — not just for the U.S.A. but for everyone on earth. We do not know how other nations, especially China, view the undertaking. What to us may look like scientific research, pure and simple, may seem to others an attempt to lay claim to something that, in fact, none of us has a claim to.

The vision of the Transfiguration ended with the words, ‘This is my Beloved Son; listen to him’, and the person of Jesus being all the disciples saw. Maybe if we listened more, if we allowed Jesus to take a more central place in our lives, we would experience less confusion, less doubt. I hope that Curiosity will teach us more than geology (though I shall be delighted to learn more geology in the process). I hope it will increase our sense of wonder and gratitude, and perhaps remind us how very small and fragile we human beings are in the scale of creation. Small and fragile, yes, but infinitely precious, too.

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Lenten Transfigurations

I like the fact that we read the gospel of the Transfiguration on the Second Sunday of Lent, and that the collect of the day invites us to feast interiorly on the word of God. That feasting on scripture is such a stark contrast to the fasting from food that marks ferias in Lent, while the revelation of God’s glory shining through our human flesh and blood is such a powerful reminder both of what we are now, God’s children, and what we are to become when we see him as he truly is.(1 John 3.3) St Paul caught the wonder of this when he wrote of our being changed from glory to glory. (2 Corinthians 3.18)

Mark’s account ends, ‘And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one with them anymore but only Jesus.’ (Mk 9.8) Isn’t that what Lent is about? All our observances are meant to help us see Jesus more clearly, and because we see him more clearly, we reflect his beauty and glory more perfectly in our lives so that others can see Jesus in us. That is the Lenten transfiguration we aim at: becoming true icons of Jesus Christ.

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The Transfiguration

The Praying Christ by D. Werburg Welch
The Praying Christ by D. Werburg Welch, © Stanbrook Abbey

The Transfiguration is one of the most luminous of feasts. Whatever happened at Tabor, whether at night as many suppose, or during the day, something of Jesus’ glory as God was revealed to Peter, James and John. No wonder the Cluniacs made this feast peculiarly their own: it breathes a very Benedictine sense of the divine glory being in everyone and everything.

That is very far from pantheism or a lovely warm fuzzy glow about the essential niceness of everything. It is instead a call to action, to a way of being. The Transfiguration reminds us of the glory of being human as well as Jesus’ glory as Son of God. When we really take that on board, we cannot go on acting as we once did, using (and possibly abusing) others for our own ends. We cannot be rude or impatient or scornful. Or rather, we can, but if we are any of those things, it is a sign that we have not yet allowed the grace of God full scope in our lives.

Earlier this week I was involved in a series of emails with people who claimed to be Christian but were the reverse of courteous. The correspondence demonstrated something I have often remarked upon: unless we treat our online communications as seriously as our offline communications and observe the same standards of truthfulness and courtesy, those of us who claim to be Christian are doing a tremendous disservice to our Faith. The internet/email/social media are as much a sacred space as any other. Here, too, we must allow the glory of God to shine through, for the Transfiguration is here and now as well as in eternity.

A note on the illustration
The illustration comes from a reprinting of the card D. Werburg Welch designed for the Abbé Couturier’s movement for Christian Unity before World War II. It was originally issued in several languages with a prayer he had composed. When I was printer at Stanbrook, it was reissued both on handmade paper and in a commercial edition.

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Seeing only Jesus

The last few days have been moderately awful, even without the horrors experienced by the people of Japan and Libya. Several of our friends have been going through what one might reasonably call ‘a bumpy patch’, while we ourselves have been struggling to meet a deadline, not helped by a number of additional demands over which we had no control. So we reach the Second Sunday of Lent tired and scratchy and what do we find? One of the most beautiful and arresting liturgies of the Church year.

In the middle of this season of fasting and penance, the collect invites us to ‘feast interiorly on the Word’, then the gospel takes us up on to Mount Tabor to witness the Transfiguration. How embarrassingly petty seem all the irritations of the past week. Even those things which tugged at the heart strings are transformed by being taken into this mysterious presence whose calm and beauty illumine our inner darkness. ‘And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one with them any more but only Jesus.’ That surely is the secret: to see only Jesus whatever may befall.

A long time ago, when I used to be asked to produce Office hymns at the drop of a wimple, I tried to express something of this moment of  Transfiguration in words:

A single moment holds
Eternity’s vast span,
As wondering earth beholds
God’s heaven revealed in Man.

Both sun and moon grow dim
And lesser stars yield place
As Light from Light they hymn
In Christ’s transfigured face.

Now Law and Prophets speak
Of what must soon befall
The One who dares to seek
Salvation for us all.

Here Peter, James and John
Stand awed by this strange sight
As whom they gaze upon
Shines whiter than the light.

The Father’s voice is heard —
Bright cloud hides all around —
His Son, the listening Word,
Alone, alone is found.

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