St Stephen's Lewisham

4th August 2002

The Transfiguration


"Ö in a different light"


Anybody who has ever produced a play on stage knows how important it is to get the lighting right. Of course it matters that the play itself should be well-written, the actors should know their lines and speak them in so that people can hear them; but the best-produced, best-written, best-spoken play will soon lose its audienceís attention if the lighting is wrong.

Itís not only a matter of having enough light. If it were, then it would only be necessary to flood the stage with as much light as possible and leave the lights in the auditorium burning. But trying to watch a play where the audience is completely dazzled the with brightness of the lights is just as bad as having the stage in near darkness. The contrast between stage and auditorium has got to be just right. Thatís why itís such an exciting moment when the house lights going out and before the curtain rising. The brief interval between the two is necessary partly to enable the audienceís eyes to get used seeing things in a different light, the progression from light into darkness warns the spectators that something is about to happen.

The Transfiguration of Jesus Christ, which we are considering today, could be called an "exercise in heavenly stage-lighting". Jesus took Peter and James and John in the very early morning, whilst it was still dark, to the top of a high mountain. They were "heavy with sleep" St Luke tells us, but it must have crossed their minds before they fell asleep that something remarkable was going to happen to them.

So it did. But not immediately. For a while it looked as though nothing was happening. Jesus knelt alone in prayer as they had often seen him do before; and those same three disciples did the same as they were to do a few weeks later on Maundy Thursday night in the Garden of Gethsemane Ė they fell asleep.

Then the curtain rose, the veil between time and eternity was momentarily drawn apart and the three of them all woke up with a start. Suddenly everything seemed to be happening at once. Everything looked quite different. They had gone to sleep in the dark; they woke up to find that Jesus had been transfigured, had come to shine with a dazzling brightness like the sun. It was as if a whole battery of spotlights had been focused on him. St Matthew tells us "his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light".

But that was only the beginning. Two other figures, Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus about the death which he was soon to suffer in Jerusalem, Saint Luke tells us. Next instant a bright cloud covered them with shadow and from the cloud there came a resounding voice which said "this is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favour, listen to him!". At the sound of it the disciples fell on their faces, overcome with fear. But Jesus came up and touched them "Stand up," he said "do not be afraid." And when they raised their eyes they saw no one but only Jesus.

That experience remained with them for the rest of their lives. St Peter, writing many years afterwards said "we have seen his majesty for ourselves. He was honoured and glorified by God the Father when the Sublime Glory (thatís to say God himself) spoke to him and said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favour." St Peter adds, "We heard this ourselves spoken from heaven when we were with him on the holy mountain"; and St John, who was also present, referred to the same experience when he said in the introduction to his Gospel "We beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth."

All of us have had similar experiences of "coming to see things (or people) in a different light". What we mean is that somebody, or something we thought we knew well enough, suddenly reveals a side of them- or it- self that we never imagined existed. For example, someone whom we always looked on as bit of a timid wimp goes and does something outstandingly brave, something we ourselves did not have the courage to do at the time; or when someone who has always "gone along with the crowd" and taken his cue from "what everyone else does" suddenly makes a stand about something; or it may be one of our fellow churchgoer who has had little formal education who says something which shows us that they have understood far better than we have what the preacher was getting at in his sermon. Or our enlightenment may result from some painful experience like being a failure in one career that we supposed ourselves to be ideally suited for, may come, in the light of time, to be seen as the necessary preliminary to doing the job that God really intended our talents to be used for.

All those experiences are called enlightenment: We come to see things in a different light.

Enlightenment cannot happen without light. Anything we can see with our eyes or in our minds we can only see because some sort of light is shining on it; and what we see will depend upon the kind of light which is illuminating it. The true colour of an object, an orange, a tomato or a fried egg will only appear when white light, which consists of the seven primary colours, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet shines upon it. A red light shining on a fried egg will make the difference between the white and the yolk disappear; shine a blue light on a painting of the sea and the detail will vanish. Nothing has any colour in itself; only the power to absorb some colours and reflect others when that mixture of colours we call "white" light shines upon it.

Donít imagine that the absence of light make anything stop existing. A chair in a pitch-dark room will still be a chair even whether the lightís on or off. Light doesnít by itself make things exist, any more than darkness makes them go away. They are there all the time. But how they appear to us will be fundamentally altered by the light in which we see them.

There are two lessons for us to learn from this. One is that the way we see Jesus is bound to be influences by whether we are walking in the light or in the dark.. We simply cannot get an accurate picture of Jesus unless we are prepared to be enlightened Ė and enlightenment may come to us in many different ways. It comes through attending the Mass; it comes through reading the Bible; it comes through Prayer; it comes through discussing our own particular insights with someone who has the skills of a Spiritual Director. Never forget, by the way, that anything we learn from such a person may be outshone by what they learn from explaining it to us. Enlightenment is always a two-way process: so whenever and wherever we seek the light we shall be letting our light shine before others that they may, together with us, glorify our heavenly Father.

The second lesson follows on from this. Itís summed up in the words you have heard me quote so often, namely There are no ordinary people.

The light in which we presently see anybody else is almost certainly a faulty one Ė that is to say the spectacles through which we see other people are tinted by the way we want to see them, whether its in a rosy or an unfavourable light.

But the way in which God sees them will be entirely different. Whilst you and I, whose vision is often darkened by our prejudices, instincts and feelings can see nothing but a dull, tedious, person, God may see him or her as the ideal person to carry out some vitally important piece of work for him in his kingdom which requires patience, longsuffering and a meticulous attention to detail; by contrast where you and I see no more than a rather loud-mouthed, boorish direct-speaking individual, God may see in them the one person who can shock people off their backsides and get them to realise that the time has come to stop talking about whatever needs putting right in the local Church and actually doing something about it.

By the grace of God, however, we come to see others "in a different light". We may come to realise that weíve been profoundly mistaken about them all along. In either case we shall have ceased to look at them with the coloured spectacles of our choice and begun to see them in the light which radiated from him when he was transfigured early that morning on the Holy Mountain. In other words we shall have become enlightened.

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