‘In a flash, at a trumpet clash/ I am all at once what Christ is/ since he was what I am, and/ this Jack, joke, potsherd,/ patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,/ is immortal diamond
What an amazing proclamation that was by the poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins! (Have a look in the inside cover of the pew sheet for the full poem…) Hopkins puts into one sentence the mystery of the Resurrection and the meaning, for us, of the story of the Transfiguration which we ponder and celebrate today. Yes, today’s Gospel story also declares who Jesus is: God’s Son, the Beloved, in whom God is well pleased. Accompanied by heavenly light, Moses and Elijah, this is powerful, revelatory, stuff. Matthew’s Gospel is leaving the disciples, and all those who come after, with no doubt about Jesus’ significance. Indeed, the story also finds Jesus associating his mission with the mysterious figure of the Son of Man. Yet, as we reflected a few weeks ago, in considering Jesus’ baptism, this is a message not just about Jesus’ true identity and destiny. It is a message about our true identity and destiny too. We are also God’s children, God’s beloved ones, in whom God is well pleased. Perhaps the figure of the Son of Man is related to this. For there is still no consensus among biblical scholars about the exact nature of the person of the Son of Man. Yet most biblical references seem to stress the humanity of this spiritual figure. Sometimes too, the Son of Man is spoken about as an individual person and at other times as a corporate person, as the community who stand in special relationship with God. So again, as in his baptism, what Christ is, we are also. We too will share in the resurrection of the Son of Man. We too, will be transfigured. Just as Moses went up the mountain and was transfigured, so we can accompany Jesus up God’s mountain and be changed from weakness into glory.
How is it possible to express this astonishing reality?
Do you believe yourself to be ‘immortal diamond’, or at least that ‘immortal diamond’ lies deep within you? It can be hard can’t it?! Yet that is the truth of our Gospel, beautifully expressed by that phrase of Hopkins. We are ‘immortal diamond’: not so much because of anything we do, but because, as Hopkins puts it, Christ ‘was’ what we ‘are’. This is the heart of our faith: that God was incarnate, made flesh, became human, just as we are, so that we could become what Christ is. As Christ shares in our suffering and our death, so we too can share in his Resurrection. We too can be transfigured. We too can discover the immortal diamond that lies within us and which we, like Christ, in and through Christ, by God’s grace, are called to be.
One of our regular parish members lent me a book recently. It too is called ‘Immortal Diamond’, taking up that wonderful phrase of Manley Hopkins. It is the latest book of many by Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar who has become one of the finest spiritual teachers of our generation. There is so much in the book to treasure, to challenge and to inspire. At the very beginning for instance, Richard Rohr reminds us of Mark’s Gospel, where the first disciples ran away from the empty tomb and said nothing to anyone, ‘because they were afraid’. ‘Such running from resurrection’, observes Rohr, ‘has been a prophecy for Christianity and much religion’. ‘I interpret this’, he says, ‘as the human temptation to run from and deny not just the divine presence, but our own souls, our inner destiny, our true identity.’ ‘We are made for transcendence and endless horizons’, Rohr comments, ‘but our small ego usually gets in the way.’ So, by the grace of God, we must let go of our small False Self and allow our True Self to shine out. We must mine the immortal diamond within.
And that is really why we celebrate the Transfiguration today. For this is the end of our Epiphany church season, when we have been reflecting upon the light of Christ in our lives and world. Today we therefore come to a climax, as we see that light in the fullness of its glory. It shines out from a human being, Jesus, to remind us that this is also our destiny, if we too would climb the spiritual mountain with God in Christ. Which, of course, is precisely where Lent, our time of preparation for Easter, comes in. We receive a vision of the mountain top so that we can walk through the valleys of Lent. It gives us encouragement to face up to our False Self, with all our small egoistic ways: our selfishness, our sin and the suffering we inflict on ourselves and one another. It inspires us to let go and let God, so that our True Self can start to shine out more fully.
For this is the point - the heart of our Gospel and of Richard Rohr’s teaching - that once we have begun to encounter our True Self, and the joy and lightness of being it brings, why our False Self will start to fall away. For Resurrection, as our Carnival theme this year has it, is about what the early Christians called the ‘Phos Hilarion’: the ‘Laughing Light’ which shone in Christ. This is the purpose of our Lent again this year: not for us to dwell on sin, suffering and selfishness, but for us to let go of them and discover the joy of the immortal diamond which is God in us.
So, this year, let us take time to try to let go of some of those small ego things in our lives: letting go of the trappings of our False Self so that we can find our True Self, the treasure of the immortal diamond buried within us. Let us take time to cultivate silence, to study, to share our spiritual journey and its hopes and questions with others. Let us take time to be rather than simply to do. Let us take time to pray, and to be with God: which, really, is actually the same thing. For sometimes we think and act as if God were somewhere else than right here, with, among, and in us. When we approach prayer we sometimes think and act as if we talking to, or even, at God. And we sometimes think and act as if God is somewhere else, maybe not even with us at all. How upside down can that be. The heart of prayer is really not talking to God at all, but listening. And God is not so much elsewhere, or out there, as right here, and deep within us. Remember the little song ‘Be still and know that I am God’? That is so close to the mark for anyone who seeks to mine their immortal diamond. Richard Rohr puts it beautifully: we need to shift he says from thinking about and doing things for God to participating in God. For we are called to be Resurrection people: ‘the tomb is empty’ and ‘grace is everywhere’. Can we then, like Jesus, shift from looking out to God to looking out from God’? Can we experience the joy of being ‘immortal diamond’?
On Ash Wednesday we are invited to receive the sign of ashes on us: a reminder, as Hopkins put it, that we fading flesh, mortal trash, falling to the residuary worm. Yet this is but half of the story. On Easter morning, Richard Rohr is right, we should be anointed with holy oil. For, in the Resurrection, ‘all at once’ we are ‘what Christ is, for he was’ what we are: the Laughing Light of Transfiguration. Amen.