the Transfiguration

Journey’s 10th Anniversary

Saturday 10th May 10 -4 Dr Nicola Slee’s retreat at Westhill Selly Oak ‘Celebrating the Risen Christa’ Price £20 with a minimum of £5 to cover lunch for concessions. Deposit £5 with booking. Seeking the Risen Christa.

The image and concept of a female Christ figure has been explored by many artists, theologians and writers down the centuries, and rediscovered by feminist theologians in the past few decades. In this day, Nicola Slee will share images of the Christa, some of her own poems and responses to the Christa, and help us think about why this idea might be helpful, and what it might mean for us to affirm a risen Christa and to consider ourselves as risen people in company with Christ/a. Nicola Slee is Research Fellow at The Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, a poet and author of many books and articles, including ‘Seeking the Risen Christa’ (SPCK, 2011).


I was preaching on the Transfiguration text from the Gospel of Matthew 17:1-9 on this Sunday that also begins Women’s Week 2014 We must first honour the insights of scholars and of tradition about the mountaintop experience that illuminated Jesus’ true identity for Peter, James and John (and for believers, including us, in every age). Perhaps we’ve forgotten Jesus’ baptism, when the sky opened up and a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased," which should have made Jesus’ identity perfectly clear. And at the start of the 40 days of Lent the Baptism and the Temptation of Jesus in the desert are brought to mind. Just in case we have forgotten, Epiphany, the season of light, comes to a close with one more story about light: Jesus’ face, shining "like the sun," his clothes "dazzling white," and then a "bright cloud" overhead, with a voice that once again pronounces him God’s "Beloved" Son – only this time, we also hear the command to "listen to him!"

Some scholars claim that this text is only about Jesus’ identity being revealed before he goes on to Jerusalem and his death. The story, they insist, is not about us, about who we are or who we are called to be as followers of this Jesus. However, it seems to me that this perspective makes it exceedingly difficult to access layers of meaning in the text; in fact, it almost seems to over-simplify the whole story. We might easily imagine those three men: Peter, James and John, going back down the mountain with all of their questions answered, their doubts resolved, and their confusion dispelled. Except that we know that’s not what happened, and the disciples will continue to stumble along, right up to the crucifixion and on to the empty tomb. It’s strange we have the three male disciples. The Law and the Prophets being symbolised by Moses and Elijah another male trinity. The representation of the Divine Trinity with the Father’s voice, the man Jesus and the dazzle light of the Holy Spirit. At least by the resurrection the women take a central role meeting Christ first.

I confess that I approached this reflection, then, with a measure of trepidation: the story of the Transfiguration does not lend itself easily to the experience, insights, and gifts of women. This morning, a colleague and I acknowledged the almost "men’s club" feel to the story about Jesus, three male disciples, two male prophets and (traditionally) God the Father in heaven, speaking to them in this intimate and life-changing way. It was a moment they would always remember, something special that only they shared, and while we all know that the women were present in many places throughout the Bible, they clearly were not invited up to the top of that mountain.

Fortunately, one scholar opens the possibility of exploring deep layers of meaning in this story: according to Stanley P. Saunders, the "Transfiguration is enigmatic, symbolically dense, and resists singular interpretations" (Preaching the Gospel of Matthew: Proclaiming God’s Presence). We can assume that makes room for the voices of women as well, almost as if we too were there on the mountain that day, even though women, unfortunately, do not appear in the most familiar mountaintop experiences, with Moses or Peter, James and John. Women were at the empty tomb, at the foot of the cross, in the kitchen and at Jesus’ feet in the story of Mary and Martha, and alert to the crisis of a wine shortage at a wedding feast in Cana. They also danced when the seas parted for the people of Israel to escape the Egyptians (Miriam), covertly helped the Israelite spies before the battle of Jericho (Rahab), hid the Hebrew babies from Pharaoh’s murderous intent (the midwives), and, like Ruth and Naomi, they’ve quietly taken care of one another within one patriarchal setting after another. But taken up on top of the mountain for one of those transcendent experiences of God? Not so much.

So preaching on this text at the start of Women’s Week, I hope I would shed a bit of light on the many ways we catch a glimpse of God’s presence and power in our lives, and not just through (male) apostles, church leaders and teachers, but through the lives and words, the actions and gifts, of women, and not only in the church.

The first challenge we face, however, is holding in tension both the nearness and the otherness of God: in the Transfiguration, we experience Jesus as human, climbing up that mountain with his friends, but we also experience the transcendence, the divinity, if you will, of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. How do we begin to describe, let alone experience, transcendence? The great writer, Annie Dillard, has famously suggested that we should wear "crash helmets" to church instead of our Sunday best (whatever that may be these days): "Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?" (Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters). The Transfiguration, we remember, is about that spiritual power, that transcendence, that otherness, but we have been too strenuously taught that the spiritual and the physical are split apart: the spiritual being higher, better, holier, and, as it turns out, more "male" than the physical, which is lower, more problematical, more tempting, more fallen, more embodied, and, as it turns out, more "female." (The earth, too, that is, creation, by its very physical nature, has been pronounced fallen and lesser, as our treatment of it bears out.)

The result? We have not been conditioned, we have not developed enough sensitivity to perceive God’s presence at work in our lives, in the everyday, physical, even mundane lives we lead. Most importantly, we have not learned well to encounter the image of God in one another, even though we have read the Genesis story over and over again. Mystics know how to do this better: Thomas Merton describes "a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time," and, most importantly, he sees that radiance, because of the Incarnation, shining through each and every one of us. "There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun," he writes, and he recognizes "the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts…" (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander). But Merton is not alone in this understanding: as women’s voices are being raised and heard more and more, we read not only Annie Dillard but Annie Lamott describing the "radiance" that dwells within each of us and gives us, perhaps, a taste of God’s own presence, the God that we all search for (Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair). If the early church believed that the Transfiguration gave us a foretaste of heaven, then opening our eyes and our hearts to that light, that radiance, within each one of us, no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey – that is a hint of what lies underneath all reality, what lies ahead of us someday.

Do women have a "special" sensitivity to God’s presence, or God’s power at work in the world? We haven’t progressed very far if we simply continue to stereotype women and men – for better or worse – but I have wondered at times if the doctrine of original sin, for example, would have been articulated in quite the same way by women, who in every age have looked upon their new-born babies and recognized the radiance, the inexpressible goodness of that gift from God. If the voice of women had been included (and perhaps the mystics would have helped with this as well), perhaps our teachings would have been shaped with a more gentle and merciful grace.

There as we are looking at the Risen Christa on 10th Mat with Dr Nicola Slee, I thought I would introduce the female side of Christ. This provoked so good discussion. Did Jesus use both masculine and feminine energies? What is masculinity? The anger shown when he overturns the money changers in the Temple? What about when he welcomes the children, or has his feet anointed by Mary? Many would argue that sex is not binary and there is a range from male to female. Also Jesus was born a man in a patriarchal society where as a woman things would have been very different and I do not believe a Christa would have been crucified. But that is not to say Christ is eternally male. Christa could have been with the Godhead before and after the incarnation. So book your place in May to find out more!!!

When a woman steps into the pulpit to preach the good news, before she even speaks a word, the message goes out that God speaks through both women and men, perhaps not in exactly the same way every time, but with a richness and fullness that has been missing whenever and wherever women’s voices have been silenced. When a woman shares her gifts, her insights, her story, then God’s presence, God’s radiance is glimpsed, tasted even for a moment, by those who have the eyes to see and the heart to understand. In every area of life – the home, church, the workplace, the public sphere, in nursing homes and hospitals, social service agencies, in the kitchen and the boardroom and the office, in sports and even entertainment venues, there are myriad ways that God’s love shines through the lives of women. Who are the women in your church, your family, your community, who have "shown" you God’s radiant love? Who are the women in your church, your family, your community and around the world whose voices have been silenced even today? How will you pause this week, each day, and notice the radiance of God shining in the most unexpected people and places? What will change because of our reflections during this Women’s Week 2014?

By Stephen Bentley and Karen Georgia Thompson


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