The Church of England breaks ranks with the universal Church on Quinquagesima (the Sunday before Lent) and reads the Transfiguration gospel at the Principal Service. This story (Matthew 17) is, on one level, an action-packed thriller, but its real purpose is to reveal the glory that belongs to Jesus, given by his Father, a glory to be revealed plainly in the End time. It is good to get this shining and beautiful image of Jesus in our heads before Lent starts. By the end of Holy Week, he will be a lump of battered meat, scourged and beaten, spat upon and pierced with nails and spear, ‘barely human in his appearance’. But in each of these wildly differing images we see the same glory of God, the same dealings with and invitation to humankind.
The Bible almost never tells us what its characters look like. There are exceptions, like ruddy-cheeked David and laughably diminutive Zacchaeus, but, in the main, pen-portraits are notable by their absence. We do not know, for example, if Jesus’ well-known appetite for parties left him pleasantly plump (like Dennis Potter’s Son of Man) or whether his constant wanderings round Galilee left him lean and wiry. Indeed at several places in Scripture we are told not to judge by appearances but by the fruits of the heart. Thus our only visual sense of Jesus and the other characters of our story comes through the work of artists, who have rightly made Jesus look like ‘us’, whoever ‘we’ happen to be. An Ethiopian icon will portray him as an African, while the art of the Far East presents him as an oriental sage. In England we are surrounded by a Jesus who is improbably pasty and blue-eyed, with a mother who unaccountably appears to be from somewhere near Kilkenny. In some artistic representations he even looks like a first century Palestinian. Yet he came to identify himself with all of us and in our art we all identify ourselves with him.
All art derives from and contributes to our sense of who Jesus is, but by far the greatest ingredient in apprehending a sense of his identity comes not from art but from the stories and sayings of the gospels. In these accounts of his person and place, we receive a host of vivid images and each of us will have a favourite scene or saying that encapsulates for us the Jesus of our understanding. Writing in the dust with the woman taken in adultery; healing the man lowered through the roof; calming the storm; cleansing the Temple of its merchants and moneychangers; weeping at the news of the death of his friend. It is primarily these scenes that make up for us the Jesus with whom we become familiar and to whom we come in prayer.
And these are not flat two-dimensional images. They come to us with a hundred associations from the Old Testament, often brought out for us by the Church through the choice of Old Testament reading that accompanies the gospel in worship.
Such a thing occurs on the Sunday before Lent in Year A. Jesus is sent up the high mountain with Peter, James and John. This image is paired with the assent of Sinai by Moses and Joshua. On arrival, both sets of mountaineers find the presence of God, communicated to them in the same combination of glory, affirmation and fear.
The glory of God is seen in and through bright cloud, the combination of cloud to hide and brightness to reveal being for most humans the typical blend of knowing and not knowing encountered in our dealings with God. This is an important antidote to the facile view that God makes everything plain with the pithy clarity of a fridge magnet. It reminds us that God must be hunted, sought, discovered in life, Scripture, worship: a divine quarry that does not give itself up too easily. Of course God’s Spirit will be calling out to us, heart to heart, but this is a serious engagement with an unspeakable prize, and is never to be undertaken lightly.
There is, happily, affirmation also. For Moses and the children of Israel, the giving of the Law is one symbol of the covenant relationship between God and the twelve tribes. For the apostles and for Jesus, there is the assurance of his baptism heard again, that Jesus (God’s Word made flesh) is God’s ‘beloved Son’ in whom the Father delights, one to whom all should come near to listen. This is immense encouragement, drawing and driving us up the holy mountain of encounter, sure in the knowledge that our final end is a meeting with goodness, love and truth. Jesus is beloved, and so are we all.
Finally, just to stop things from getting too cosy and domestic, there is an element of fear experienced by the apostles as they encounter the majestic glory of God and throw themselves humbled to the ground. This echoes the recognition of the Israelites that the appearance of God is as ‘a devouring fire’. This fear is not the fear of walking up a dark alley at night or visiting the dentist after years of neglect. It is, rather, the recognition that our dealings with Almighty God (however loving, however gentle his Christ) are part of a journey to the very centre of all that is. This invites and demands a seriousness and a whole-heartedness we must pray for grace to acquire. Without them, certainly, our progress will be slow and our lives will be in danger of remaining trivial and quite superficial.
These three elements of glory, affirmation and a proper humility at the unimaginable power and majesty of God are at the heart of any serious attempt to pursue the mystery of God. They must characterise our own approach to continuing in ever-growing union with the Lord who desires to be at the absolute heart of all that we are. We may not know what he looks like, but we uncover him slowly and feelingly, as a blind man might read braille, and as he himself stands at the door of our heart knocking, seeking admittance to bring us his gift of abundant life.
We can use the approaching season of Lent to make time to climb our own mountain of meeting, getting to know even better the Jesus we encounter in prayer and worship all year long. Through ‘fasting, prayer, and acts of service’, we find the image of Christ within us growing in strength and vitality, forming us more completely as his followers, conforming us more obediently to his will, and transforming us more visibly into those who have seen his glory, ‘the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth’.