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Sunday next before Lent Exodus 24.12-end; 2 Peter 1.16-end; Matthew 17.1-9

Today's Gospel reading marks the transition point between the season of Epiphany, which we have recently left behind, and the season of Lent which is about to begin. During Epiphany we saw Jesus's true identity revealed through various signs - the testimony of the shepherds and the wise men, the joy of Anna and Simeon in the Temple, the solemn moment of Jesus's baptism by John and his first miracle at the wedding in Cana. Today we see the most decisive and dramatic of those signs, the transfiguration.

The word 'transfiguration' was a bit of a rarity until recently – something only Christians talked about - but all that changed with the arrival of the phenomenon that is Harry Potter. Unfortunately, this hasn't helped us much, because transfiguration in the world of J.K. Rowling has a very different meaning to the word as it is used in the Gospels. in his transfiguration lessons at Hogwarts, Harry is taught how to change something into something else – a teapot into a toad, for example. But this is the very opposite of what happened to Jesus on the mountaintop. He didn't change into somebody else. He didn't assume a disguise. In a deeply mysterious way, he became more himself. The Gospel reading speaks of a sort of stripping away which allows the light and the glory of God to shine in and through Jesus so that the disciples can see it. Some of the earliest commentators on this passage claimed that the real miracle was that Jesus didn't appear like this all the time; that his divinity usually remained shrouded within his humanity. So, what made the difference on this occasion?

Without in any way seeking to diminish the wonder and mystery of the story, I think we can imagine why Peter, James and John might have been receptive to such a vision. In Matthew's Gospel, this passage comes after a particularly frenetic time in Jesus's ministry. His reputation as a healer had grown to such an extent that the disciples were overwhelmed by the crowds and anxious about the ever-present threat from the Pharisees and Sadducees. But now they were at last alone with Jesus, literally above it all. It was quiet. As they climbed, it would be natural for them to be thinking about Moses and Elijah, those great figures of the Hebrew Scriptures who met God on a mountaintop - Moses on Mount Sinai, as we heard in our reading from Exodus, and Elijah on Mount Horeb. When they reached the top, they were breathless and ready to rest. Luke tells us in his account that they were weighed down with sleep. And somehow it is that change of focus that allowed them to see Jesus as he really was and to hear his Father's words of affirmation. Suddenly it all made sense. Jesus was the heir of both Moses and Elijah. Like Moses, he would pronounce God's law, but it would be a new commandment of love. Like Elijah, he would call on God's power, but that power would be made known through his suffering and death.

I find it moving that, years after the event, Peter was still speaking about the transfiguration in the passage from his Second Letter that we have just heard. Clearly, it was a pivotal moment in his own journey of faith, and he wanted other disciples to share the excitement and hope that it brought him. 'You will do well to be attentive to this,' he writes, 'as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.'

How might we catch a glimpse of the glory of God? Perhaps we need to allow ourselves to be less preoccupied, to be open and receptive as the disciples were on the mountain top. Sometimes as I'm walking home from one of our silent prayer meetings here on a Tuesday night, my sight and hearing seem much sharper than usual, as though my senses have been washed clean. Maybe it's at times like those that God can take us by surprise. Lent is a good time to set aside the things that so readily distract us and to open up a space where the Holy Spirit can find us.

Last Friday I was on duty as a day chaplain in Chichester Cathedral, and by chance – or maybe not – I met an artist who shared with me some words of the French theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: 'You came down to me by means of a tiny scrap of created reality, and then, suddenly, you unfurled your immensity before my eyes and displayed yourself to me as Universal Being'. I pray that we may know something of that immensity in these coming weeks, and that we may find our hope and faith renewed.



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