Finding God when we look back

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :-Retrospectives can be quite a good thing. I know an artist who has struggled for years and has finally ‘made-it’, so that his long years in the doldrums are finally being rewarded. My guess is that for most of us, our Christian faith is similarly shaped, and we weakly totter on mostly in the dark, and feel we are not getting very far. Only in retrospect do incidents, and indeed our lives, begin to take on some shape, make sense and have meaning. I suspect quite a bit of biblical writing is of this kind too. Contrary to expectation, Pauline moments of vast illumination can be quite thin on the ground.

The writers of the more historical bits of Genesis, (here 12:1-4 not chapters 1-11) were probably grappling with the question of why their ancient ancestors were thought to have left the Fertile Crescent and made their home in Palestine. On the face of it this was a very odd thing to have done, as Mesopotamia was famously rich in agriculture and cities, watered each spring by the melt waters of the Tigris and Euphrates and their tributaries, and the cradle of civilization as we know to this day. What ancient memory was it that Jews recorded in their Abram epic that led to a significant migration that would ultimately result in their becoming a people, and a people uniquely noted for worshipping one, sole god, and who came to live in such a different country? I suspect behind our given account lies a story of land shortage and population growth, of severe tensions which ultimately were resolved by the departure of one clan or tribe, who in the end made good in Palestine, and looking back, realised that their ancestors had made the right move.

Something similar seems to have occurred with our Gospel,(Matthew 17:1-9) the account of the Transfiguration, and indeed, the other side of it, last week’s Gospel of the temptations of Jesus. Clearly, whatever happened originally, Peter, James and John were totally thrown by the incident, and it appears only understood its significance much later, after the resurrection. It was only later, when they reflected on the significance of Jesus’ presence with Moses and Elijah, representatives of the Jewish law and the prophets, that they came to appreciate the distinctiveness of the Christian message and the person of the bringer of the Good News. Neither Moses nor Elijah, close to God as they were, was ever acclaimed as Jesus was by the Father at the Transfiguration. The point surely being made is that for those disciples Jesus was revealed in his full divine and human identity, Incarnate and perfect. This was something neither Moses nor Elijah ever were, for they were faulty and despairing, and so the uniqueness of God the Son was made clear. It was a moment of catastrophic change and shift, both for the disciples and for Jesus; and of course for the entire Christian community of which we are a part. For Jews would not be able to accept the Incarnation, and it would become both the reason for the crucifixion, and ultimately for the great split between Judaism and Christianity which Matthew wrote of so passionately and with such pain.

The account of the Transfiguration is therefore a retrospective, in that it speaks of the glory that was Christ’s from the beginning, which is revealed at the event itself, and which gradually made more and more sense after the resurrection and continued to evolve and be understood as Christianity moved away from its Jewish origins out into the pagan world.  We see this understanding reflected in Jesus’ instruction that the disciples ‘Tell no one about the vision until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.’ Getting to grips with the fact that God, who is totally other, not even ‘in’ the created order, could also choose to become human and relate to us on such a personal level, does of course take some getting used to, and it alters all our notions of what God is like. If we think of God as totally remote, as simply as creator, then the notion that he is involved with his world becomes unacceptable. We might opt for an interventionist view, one where God rewards the good and punishes the bad – though this does not seem to fit with experience. But when we meet the God of Jesus, we meet someone quite different. Granted we still think of him as all powerful creator and sustainer, but our experience of God in Jesus is mind-blowingly different. For he is God in human form, open to all our frailty and ultimately open to death. The retrospective then becomes a story of our engagement with this God who is capable of being both divine and human and the great sea-change this brings about in the human understanding of God.

At a different level, we see the imprisoned Paul writing to his trusted fellow worker in the faith Timothy, (2 Tim 1:8-10) and reflecting on the meaning of his imprisonment and sufferings. On the face of it, one might have thought that such events suggested dire misfortune; failure to be smart enough to evade ones enemies; or even evidence of the utter delusion that was Christianity. But for St Paul this is precisely the proof that he is on the right track, imitating his Lord who was persecuted and suffered. It is unfortunate that our dreadful translation actually alters the Greek so as to omit from verse 8 ‘Do not be ashamed then of testifying to our Lord’, and thus simply presents Paul’s conviction as merely sage advice, for in Greek the word for testifying is marturion, later to be taken up by the Church for martyrs, those who gave their lives for the faith. It is Paul’s reflection on the whole purpose of Christ’s earthly mission, and his will for us, that makes it possible for him to carry on, and which makes sense of his life as he awaits eventual execution. We too, are those who need to be able to make sense of our lives through reflecting back on what has made us the people we are, and understand ourselves as destined to be sharers in God’s glory, as did Paul.