Ascending and Descending

Sunday 19th February 2012
Year B, The Sunday next before Lent
St John The Baptist, Clayton
2 Kings 2:1-12
Mark 9:2-9

A couple of weeks ago I was having lunch with a new acquaintance and we went through the usual rituals: where we lived, what we did for a living, place of origin; and we naturally got on to what we studied at university. We were delighted to learn that we had both studied history. I asked him what period and when he said: "The cold war" I rather tactlessly said "Oh! current affairs!" but he took it in good part.

Now I know I shouldn't have said it but there is an important truth in what I said. We are so taken up by the present and perhaps even more so in the future that we are becoming seriously disconnected with the past. Our news programmes are rich in speculation but very poor in background and history. We are the best educated generation in history with the vast resources of the Internet but our grasp of where we come from is very weak.

But in societies like that of First Century Palestine where changelessness was the ideal and where change only threatened, people were not only attached to their history, they literally lived in it. So when Jesus was transfigured before his 'inner cabinet' he was accompanied by two of the three great totemic figures of the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah.

Our First Reading is an account of Elijah's death or, rather, his assumption into heaven. The point of the story is that in a curious way that Judaic theology never really handled, he didn't die. He had battled in the decadent and idolatrous world of the Kingdom of Israel, he had talked with God, been waited upon by angels and, ultimately, he was swept up to heaven. No wonder he was a figure of extraordinary power in the Judaic mind, so powerful that his return to earth was supposed by many to be the precursor of the coming of the Messiah.

And so this mountain scene uses three key images: ascending and descending, light and the mountain.

Elijah's appearance with Jesus uses the imagery of ascending and descending: first, most obviously, the presence of Elijah confirms the belief that he is indeed the associate of the Messiah; secondly, there is a tie-up between Elijah's 'going up' and 'coming down' again and Jesus going up the mountain and becoming transfigured

And it is at this point that our second character comes into focus and here the motif is light.  For Moses not only saw the figure of the Lord transfigured but he was so illumined by his contact with the divine that his own face was illumined so that he had to wear a veil so as not to dazzle the humans he was talking to; and now this same scenario is being repeated with Jesus doing the dazzling and the 'inner cabinet' of Jesus hiding their faces. And the third image of the mountain reminds us of the Covenant and the times that Moses went up and came down to the sound of trumpets and the booming of thunder.

But what under-writes the status of both Moses and Elijah and is rarely found - notably in Abraham and Samuel - is the un-distancing of God from his representatives. Moses and Elijah are depicted in the Old Testament talking to and even arguing with God.

Sermons on this subject usually focus - for no good reason I can see - on Peter's natural bewilderment which is, to be sure, a nice little narrative touch, but we should I think focus on three themes as we approach the Lenten season, continuity, transcendence and relationship.

I started out by talking about history and although our contemporary grasp is, as I said, weak, within the church context we have our lifelong relationship with the Bible and in spite of doctrinal disputes and schisms we may draw on 2000 years of prayerful thought on the nature of our God and our faith. If we look squarely at the teaching of Jesus we will immediately recognise how difficult it is to live out what he proposes and so we inevitably water down his teaching to make it tolerable, even comfortable. We would not be under such great temptation if we were more committed to our life in the Church. There is a post Reformation tendency to reduce faith to our personal relationship with God and although that relationship is fundamental - and I will return to it in a moment - it is impossible for most of us outside the context of the Church which is Christ's gift to his Easter people.

Secondly, through that church we enjoy an intimation of transcendence through the Sacraments and particularly the Eucharist which gives us the strength to continue to build God's Kingdom on earth.

And thirdly, there is our relationship with God. During the Transfiguration a voice from heaven says "This is my beloved son. Hear him" and indeed we must because at the heart of our faith there must be a personal relationship with God through Jesus in which we listen and respond. Our patterns for listening and response are Abraham, Moses and Elijah and, above all, Jesus himself whose life and death were entirely bound with the 'Father' in the economy of the Trinity.

And so, as we approach Lent, some of us will want to give something up or take on an extra task - and in its way this is good - but I would urge you - in a sadly tainted phrase - to go back to basics and to take up the Bible as your daily companion, to be nourished in faithfulness through the Eucharist and to be particularly committed to that daily time of listening to our Lord and responding to His will.