[Exodus 24, 12-18, 2 Peter 1, 16-21, Matthew 17, 1-9] I have been thinking quite a lot recently about the different ways in which we handle the concept and the fact of Time. Is it as linear as we tend to assume?
This was provoked partly by a friend’s comment that she did not feel like going to see the new film about Little Women because she had heard that it jumps about quite a lot between present and past. I had already seen the film and enjoyed it a lot so didn’t find it a problem but, then, I did know the flow of the story and perhaps that makes a difference in spotting when a flash back is taking place.
The other thing I’ve been noticing recently is the difference between people’s televisions! We have what seems to me like a fairly modern TV – in other words it’s a flat screen high density colour TV but it’s not SMART (!!) at the moment, anyway. If you haven’t a clue what I’m talking about that means, I think, that the apps that I can get on my SMARTPHONE, which I do have, such as YouTube or Netflix, I could also get on a smart TV and we could even use our mobile phones as a remote control to change what we watch on our TV!
So when we go to look after our grandchildren we usually have to get their help to return the screen to what I think of as real time TV where what is happening on the screen is actually being presented in some studio somewhere at the same moment. But, even then, if you join a programme late, a smart TV will helpfully suggest you might want to go back and start from the beginning instead of continuing in real time. I feel a bit resistant to this, but I am getting more used to it. It does make me wonder, though, whether the concept of time as a very linear straightforward march from birth to death is changing for our younger generations at least.
Our readings today concern time in its earthly linear sense with past, present and future jumping around a bit but also with God’s eternal time in all its ultimate glory. The central reading, as always, is the gospel reading about the transfiguration of Jesus when God’s glory shines forth through Jesus’ very being, through the bright cloud and through the voice declaring God’s love and approval of His Son. This passage can stand on its own for modern Christians but is, I think, enhanced and illuminated by the Exodus reading from the Jewish scriptures that we heard first.
One of the main ways that Matthew declares the credentials of Jesus is by comparing him favourably with the great patriarch, Moses, who received the commandments from God in the form of stone tablets. In both passages there is a high mountain, cloud denoting the presence of God in His glory, God’s voice calling from the cloud. Moses was allowed to enter the cloud, but it is in the account of the transfiguration of Jesus that the voice declares Jesus as God’s beloved Son. In the Exodus reading God gives Moses the tablets for the people’s instruction whereas in the gospel reading the disciples are enjoined to listen to Jesus himself. Jesus at the transfiguration is shown conversing with Moses so he is not nullifying the Law but fulfilling it.
Jesus is also seen by the three disciples, Peter, James and John, to be conversing with Elijah. Elijah is a major early prophet. He did not write a book of prophecy like Isaiah or Jeremiah who lived later on but his strong faith and prophetic deeds in trusting in the God of Israel over against the Canaanite god Baal kept the Jewish faith on track during the period of the Kings post Solomon. You can read about him in the first Book of Kings and about his death witnessed by his successor Elisha at the beginning of the second book of Kings. The fact that Elisha saw Elijah being taken up to heaven by chariot in a whirlwind is probably the root of the belief that he would return to herald the Messiah. A chapter or so later on in Matthew has Jesus assuming that Elijah had indeed returned in the form of John the Baptist.
So the transfiguration is a key event in many ways. In St Matthew’s gospel narrative it comes between a number of predictions of Jesus’ arrest and death which the disciples found very difficult to take on board. It does not fit at all with their idea of the Messiah. Peter attempted to take Jesus to task but was sharply rebuffed. Perhaps his suggestion of the 3 dwellings is an attempt to put things right.
This week we are about to enter the solemn period of Lent, so this vision of Jesus within the glory of God will hopefully remain with us, strengthening us as we approach his death and crucifixion. The same three disciples were near Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane but did not at that point have the assurance of the resurrection as we have. The presence of Moses and Elijah brings the whole Jewish past into the present of the gospel passage.
In our own lives the past also lives with us in our present moments. If life has been kind to us the past strengthens us and points to the way forward. But for many people past sinfulness or the trauma of past events overwhelms their present moments and they are unable to move on. The trauma is re-lived again and again and again waiting to be processed in some healing way. The conclusion to my ruminations on time is that we may be able to manipulate the past in new ways but we can’t change it. We may fervently wish certain things had not happened but we cannot pretend they did not. But through repentance and Jesus’ death on the cross we can access forgiveness and learn to forgive ourselves and others.
In the transfiguration of Jesus we see the glory of God, in the past, in the present and pointing to the future. Today’s reading from Peter’s second letter shows how the moment of the transfiguration stayed with Peter for years afterwards and helped him speak and write with added confidence as an eyewitness of Jesus’ kingship. As Jesus’ expected return receded into the future for Peter and for the generations afterwards up to the present Peter reminds us to be attentive to the message of the transfiguration and to see it ‘as a lamp shining in the dark places of the world until the day dawns and the morning star (which is Jesus) rises in our hearts.
Looking and reflecting on this gospel passage has strengthened my faith in a future that transcends death in which the glory of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, will encompass us all, healing us as we listen to Jesus’ words, ‘ Get up and do not be afraid.’