In one of the terrible ironies of the twentieth century, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August – the Feast of the Transfiguration. Some years later the Company of the Transfiguration was formed. It was, and I hope still is, a group of people scattered throughout the world, prompted by this grotesque coincidence, and bound together simply by a commitment to pray for peace and for the transfiguring of the world.
The strange story of the Transfiguration presents us with a challenge. Is transfiguration just a mountain-top experience for the favoured few, the three disciples who are with Jesus? This privatised view of religion is reflected in Peter’s suggestion in the story of building three shelters, to contain the glory that has been revealed on the mountain, as if glory can be contained. Or does transfiguration inform our view of the world, alerting us to that glory, wherever it is to be found?
This ambiguity is caught well in a poem by Edwin Muir, ‘The Transfiguration’, put into the mouth of one of the disciples, reflecting on the event many years later:
Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
And nowhere? Was the change in us alone,
And the enormous earth still left forlorn,
An exile or a prisoner?
‘Was the change in us alone…?’ Like Jesus, we are human and experience all the exhilaration and heartbreak of our humanity. We do not know what lies in store for us or how we will change throughout our lives. Yet this is the essence of human liberty, that it is open to the future. For it is not our limited vision which is important. What counts is God’s vision, which is truth and enfolds time, and God’s will, which is love and wisdom. The leap into the unknown, which we all take by virtue of our humanity, is an immense act of confidence and trust in the God who calls us. We are led out of ourselves to find ourselves. We are transfigured.
It is through this commitment to life – as the disciples become dimly aware on the Mount of Transfiguration – that God’s love comes into the world, which means that the change is not in us alone and that the earth is no longer a prisoner or an exile. The world can be transfigured, too.
The Ven. Dr Christopher Cunliffe
Archdeacon of Derby