The Lights By Which We See (A post for the Transfiguration, a post for Hiroshima)

As we stumble through the dark we grope towards the light, a light, any light. We walk gingerly down the tunnel, a beacon at its end, a mass of voices walking with us, some hoping that the light is the light of Transfiguration, others hoping it’s a firestorm consuming their enemies.

August 6th is a day of tensions. It celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration, the mountain-top moment in which the face of Christ shone like the sun and a greater reality broke through into dust and dirt and atoms. It also commemorates the day on which, in 1945, Hiroshima burned with a light as bright of the sun, a new world created though the sacrifice of 146,000 people, birthing Nagasaki and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Godzilla and MAD.

These lights still shape our world today. The Doomsday Clock ominous ticks towards midnight with every missile test, with every rattled sabre. We can wipe out everyone on Earth several times over with the push of a few buttons, and maybe, to some, that power is intoxicating, invigorating. We think our nations and our borders and our flags deserve that power, the apotheosis of security that leads to idolatry and blasphemy. Some of us walk down this path, feeling the rush of the firestorm, secure that our enemies can be turned to ash without a scream, and yet terrified that a different false God wrapped in a different banner will turn his wrath upon us.

We’re guided by the beauty of our weapons, as Leonard Cohen might say, but that beauty burns.

The Transfiguration also points to a different world; not a new one but a world which has always been with us, alongside us, a different Kingdom based not on ability to anilhilate everything (no matter how find we may be of that idea), but of life, hope, love, grace. On the mountain the light of that Kingdom burns through, more illumination than heat, a light at the end of the tunnel that we can run toward, desperate with hope, weary at the end of the journey. The light shines, not with the splitting of atoms but with grace; the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness doesn’t overcome it.

We can live in one light or the other, and though we might pretend to live in both we can’t; basing our security and our authority and our hopes on weapons that burn and poison is not the same as holding on to transfigured hope; these are two different stories, two different Trinities, water of Life and an acid rain, a false sun and a True Son. August 6th invites us to compare these two stories, to see where our futures lie: God or atoms, the bunker or the mountain.

Gotta Kick at the Darkness ‘Til It Bleeds Daylight (The Feast of the Transfiguration and World Humanitarian Day)

Once, long ago, four men climbed a mountain, they climbed a mountain and at the top one’s face shone like the sun as he was transfigured in front of his friends. It’s a moment of revelation, and it points to Jesus’s identity as the Son of God incarnated here on earth, but I’m never sure what to do with it. It’s liminal and mystical, and we don’t live in a particularly liminal or mystical world.

But the Eastern Orthodox Feast of the Transfiguration and World Humanitarian Day both fall on August 19th, and so it feels like the two should be in conversation with each other. After all, the Transfiguration states that not only is another world possible, not only is another world out there, but that another world is here. And it may be hidden and it may be slow in being revealed, and it may be wearing sandals and tired from the climb, but it’s present, incarnated among the shouting and the weeping and the chaos.

When Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, the disciples didn’t see an alternative reality, they saw something that’s already here, often invisible but always present, the light of the world breaking through the walls we build around it and the veneer we paint over it. And it drove them to their knees, because in the face of occupation and oppression, poverty and prejudice, Reality broke through and they never wanted it to end.

But they had to come down the mountain, had to go back into the world, had to watch the One whose face shone with the glory of God get nailed to a cross, had to watch the Divine fall victim to state sponsored violence. “Gotta kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight,” a wise man once sang, but sometimes all you do is kick, kick until you’re exhausted and frustrated and your foot hurts like hell,  kick until you’re bleeding but the daylight isn’t.

Maybe that’s still part of the same thing though, a refusal to quit, a conviction that the light will break through, eventually, that if Christ is enthroned on a cross then there’s a Transfiguration of sorts in the kicking too, because it also points to a different world that may be hidden now but that eventually breaks through.

What does it mean to live in a world where we talk about Glory on the mountaintops but down in the valley kids stumble through the rubble, dusty and bleeding and crying for their mothers?

It means that we can’t remain silent.

It means that we can’t remain complicit.

It means that we can’t ignore the image of God in the refugee, or the wounded, or those who lie in bombed-out hospitals as the power cuts out.

It means that sometimes we shut up about the righteousness of our politics and allow ourselves to weep.

It means we let the sun get in our eyes so that we see something more than the raging and the rubble around us.

It means we honour those who go out there and try to help, it means we offer them support here at home, it means we all peer into the darkness looking for the light, because while sometimes that light is salvation, other times it’s a beacon towards which we’re being called.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John talks about this in the opening of his gospel because it shapes everything that comes after it. And it should shape us, because it means we can live in the awareness of that light, we can see it on the mountaintop but also let it sustain our hearts and hands when we’re down in the valley. And we carry it with us, and sometimes we’re the ones who have to allow it to shine through into the dark corners of the world, the war zones and refugee camps, the politics and the prejudice. And be conscious, also, that the light is already there, that we witness a reality rather than create it. And the light of that reality will not be overcome.

Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-43)


It is the day of the Transfiguration and four young men climb an unnamed mountain for an encounter with… What exactly?

The Transfiguration is epic and mysterious; Peter, James and John see Jesus’s face shine like the sun, meet Moses and Elijah, hear the voice of God Himself. But what did it all mean, what exactly was Peter experiencing that day?

A moment of beauty, yes, but maybe beautiful like a waterfall, rendering him speechless with awe in the face of majesty, and overwhelming urge to throw himself in, against every thought of self-preservation. The apostles are suddenly thrown into a different world, one in which Heaven and Earth are dancing.

We hear how Jesus is transformed by this moment, but that’s not the whole story. He was fully human, sure, but also fully divine, and here we catch a glimpse of that ultimate reality, both natures wrapped around each other, different spheres of existence locked together in the figure of a thirty-something carpenter.

The Transfiguration is a moment at which the whole scandalous message of the gospel is revealed in its power and beauty: God is present with his people, not living at a sacred distance as he did in the Exodus desert all those years ago, but getting his feet dirty and drinking wine and talking and laughing and dying and rising. His omnipresence becomes more intimate and personal, back when the glory entered the Temple, the priests fell on their faces and saw it as an expression of goodness and love; here three fishermen see all this and realise that it’s personal as well.

And yet this moment isn’t permanent; God’s presence goes on to be seen and felt in other ways. At the height of the experience, Peter wants to build tents for everyone. It sounds a crazy, mundane thing to say, but it echoes the Feast of the Tabernacles and Zechariah’s prophecy that universal celebration of this feast will be a mark of the Messianic age. Maybe Peter thinks that day has finally arrived, God come down to put everything right.

In a sense he’s right; the Messiah is here, and the Now-And-Not-Yet Kingdom is at hand. But it’s not going to be as easy as the Transfiguration may have made him think. Peter doesn’t want to think of his Messiah, his friend, going through pain and death, but there’s another hill still to climb. On that day, the people alongside Jesus will be dying terrorists, not honoured prophets; instead of speaking out loud, God will appear terrifyingly silent. Maybe that’s why here God chooses only to say “This is my Son – listen to him!”. Take the hint guys.

We see something of this at the foot of the mountain. Peter and the others can’t stay up there with Moses and Elijah, and as NT Wright points out, every telling of this story is followed by an encounter with a demon-possessed boy. From the heights of the Transfiguration, the group are brought back down to earth with a bump; there’s no time to contemplate what they’ve just seen before the fear and frustration and busyness and confusion of the ‘real’ world comes crashing into them. And yet even there we see God’s presence; the boy is healed and restored to his family. The beams of light and the ancient heroes may be hidden once more, but God’s presence remains. And now the moments in which the Kingdom breaks through serve to transfigure the world.