Scripture for the last Sunday after Epiphany: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9 (transfiguration of Jesus)
There’s an advertisement on TV at the moment for a holiday company that draws on the idea that there are moments in childhood (and life!) when we would just like time to stand still. Peter would have understood. Faced with the vision of Jesus transcendent, with Moses and Elijah, he blurted out a suggestion to build three houses, which is the only way he could express a desire to make the moment last. But time does not stand still, it marches on. We have to learn to use the gift of memory to keep those precious moments alive.
People are the same. We have our transfiguration moments and our darker moments. Peter would have preferred the Jesus on the mountain to the one whom he watched failing to defend himself, and collapsing into the dirt of Jerusalem streets with a cross on his back. Of course, it was the same Jesus. Peter’s memory of the transfigured Jesus was overshadowed by the circumstances of seeing his hopes fall into an abyss.
Yet we have a choice in terms of how we see people. It is possible to see the attractive side of people as much as their annoying or even hurtful side. As an aside, it is often true that what we see as annoying in others is a reminder of what we dislike about ourselves.
As a priest, I tend to witness rather a full spectrum in this regard. I’m often privileged to see moments of real grace, love and joy in the way that people treat one another. They very often happen at the times of great happiness – or of great challenge and sadness – because very often, a crisis can bring out the very best in people.
But I also see the unpleasant side of people, that they choose not to show to others: the petty, niggling remarks, the unpleasant sniping, the passive-aggressive behaviour, the refusal to have a sense of proportion about petty slights and offences. And usually, sadly, it’s not the important things that reveal this side of human nature. It’s quite often in reality trivial stuff, relatively insignificant things.
When we turn our view aside from the good side of people and dwell on their flaws and failings, on petty hurts and offences, we deny Jesus just as Peter did. As a living metaphor, he gathered a diverse and potentially divisive group of disciples and expected them to unite in purpose behind him. Unfortunately, he had to die before that happened. It is possible to look at anyone and see the image of God stamped on them – possible, but not always easy. It is equally possible to see what is wrong with them. One way attracts us to others, the other results in rejection.
The message of transfiguration is to encourage us to be open to see what is already available to be seen, just as what was experienced on the mountain was in fact a repetition of what happened at the baptism of Jesus. As George Herbert wrote: “A man who looks on glass, on it may stay his eye; or if he chooseth, through it pass, and then the heaven espy.”
So it is with us in many aspects of our vision. We can look upon the glass of one another’s lives and get stuck with an earthly myopia. Or we can let our vision pass through the glass and see at least a shadowy version of the heavenly image of God’s perception of the beloved children that we are meant to be. Remember: God is with us in both the moments of glory and the times of suffering. And it’s true, that, being human, the moments when we espy the heavenly side of those around us will, at times, be obscured by the messy side of human nature.
We can’t build little dwellings to make time stand still. But we can preserve the memory of those moments of transcendent vision of each other to carry us through the cloudy times. It’s worth doing – rather than being diminished by cynicism and bitterness, it allows our lives to be enriched by the gift of those around us.