Sacred Paradox

Sunday 7th February 2016
Year C, The Sunday next before Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
2 Corinthians 3.12-3.18; 4.1-4.2
Luke 9.28-36

In Chapter 34 of the Book of Exodus we read that Moses, having communed with The Lord, put a veil over his face when addressing the Chosen People because it shone with the reflected glory of The Lord. Setting aside some of the rather clumsy metaphoric language in our First Reading from Saint Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians, and its immediate purpose of justifying his ministry, the wider meaning is clear: whatever the barriers were under the Old Covenant to a direct relationship between God and His People, no such barrier exists since the Incarnation of Christ, an idea with which we are familiar through our reading of the Gospels where Jesus is recognisably human, although, unlike us, perfect. With almost 2000 years of theology behind us we almost automatically shift from the idea of God as supernatural and human within the framework of Trinitarian theology. AT the same time, we are accustomed to seeing the Bible as a whole, making connections between the Old and New Testaments, seeing Moses and Elijah in the context of the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus. But the followers of Jesus had no such framework or scriptural contextualisation, and so perhaps it is not so surprising that Jesus chose to manifest himself to his 'inner cabinet' - Peter, James and John - in all his glory, as a way of explaining both his continuity with Jewish tradition and his radical break from it. Saint Luke places the story directly before the beginning of the long journey up to Jerusalem which forms the bulk of the second half of his Gospel, leading up to the events of the final week of the life of Jesus; and so perhaps the appearance, in what we call the "Transfiguration" was staged to bolster the leadership of his followers during the grim events which led to Good Friday but not with any very obvious effect, although it is fair to say that Saint Luke's account of the failings of the followers of Jesus on Good Friday is much more tempered than that of Matthew and Mark (Luke 23.49).

For us, too, the revelation of God's glory in Jesus is a precursor to the journey to the Cross and then beyond, a foretaste of what is to come, a source of encouragement and wonder; but if we do not take that journey to heart the prelude is for nothing.

As the years turn, it is ever more difficult to bring renewed commitment to cyclical events: even if we are not attracted by novelty it is easy to become weary of repetition; but what we need to realise, when we look into our hearts, is that there is no point to Christmas without Lent, Easter and the Resurrection. Nobody who buys a biography of a great person is satisfied by reading the first chapter dealing with childhood. To be Easter children, in the deepest sense, we also need to be Lenten children, to take the journey, to feel the pain, not out of some perverse need to hurt ourselves but because we owe it to Jesus who died for us to worship through empathy, not just intellectually but also emotionally and spiritually.

So how do we make things different so that we can better observe the Season of Lent? The first thing to say is that we need to do the obvious things better: to give more time for and openness to prayer, primarily as a listening rather than a speaking act; to be more methodical and thoughtful in our Bible reading; and, in the context of a culture that hardly understands fasting anymore, except as a health or vanity strategy, we need to think about not what we can do without, to teach us to put what we have into perspective, but also to do without things that obscure our relationship with God, whether this is inordinate time involved in trivial digital pursuits, or a tendency to say too much in judging others or to say too little in supporting those who need it. The point is that we have three days before Ash Wednesday to sit down quietly and take stock, to look at ourselves and see how we might take steps to make our relationship with God closer and deeper. And if we get it right, this improvement will not be a sporadic Lent event but an aid to getting us to a higher level so that next Lent we will not repeat what we do this Lent but will find ways of taking yet further steps towards God.

All these ways of thinking, resolving and acting are familiar. We have thought it all before but perhaps we have not thought carefully enough about going outside our comfort zone not, again, to cause ourselves pain, but because our worst enemy is comfort, making us think that we have sorted out our lives; that WE have sorted out our lives. But if we think such a thing it seems to me that it has three major consequences: first, we run the risk of thinking that the good we do is of ourselves and not of God; secondly, we forget that we are all dependent for our existence on others; and, thirdly, that a lot of what we enjoy depends upon the hardship and even misery of others.

In a world where we can no longer hide from the world because it confronts us 24 hours per day, my resolution is to make a greater effort to understand and then to mitigate the socio economic arrangements by which my comfort depends on the hardship and misery of others. We live in a global economy where socio economic orthodoxy is remarkably dominant, where Francis Fukuyama wasn't far wrong when he talked about the end of history and the triumph of capitalism. We are enslaved by theories of growth and taxation, about our own and government helplessness, about the power of companies and the volatility of markets. We are so far gone that we have come to believe ourselves, always the worst possible place to conclude.

What we are inevitably led to by a relationship with God is doubt about ourselves as we struggle with the question: "Is this what I want or what God wants?' We may never fully know as self deception is in our DNA; but as we struggle with ourselves we would do well to bear in mind Jesus laid in the manger and Jesus transfigured on the mountain with the whole weight of Covenant promise behind him and the Passion and Resurrection in front of him, at once vulnerable and glorious, a sacred paradox which makes a nonsense of our own simplicities