This sermon was preached at St Mark’s, Versailles, on the Sunday before Lent (11th February 2018). The Church of England has adapted the Revised Common Lectionary and provides the Transfiguration as a focus before the season of Lent begins on Wednesday 14 February. In that sense, it mirrors the plot of the synoptic gospels. The juxtaposition of the Old Testament and Gospel accounts suggested the experience of loneliness as a natural starting point; and this seemed appropriate as I met with a chaplaincy about to begin the process of advertising for a new priest.
A couple of weeks ago, the British charity, Action for Children, published a report on the effects of loneliness. It’s part of the legacy of the British MP, Jo Cox, who was murdered in 2016. She identified loneliness as a serious problem in her Yorkshire constituency. She saw it damaging health and happiness, and began investigating what could be done.
We often imagine that loneliness is something that only begins to impact on us with advancing age. But this report reveals that it is a fact of life across the age spectrum – and the social spectrum. Over half of young parents described themselves as lonely. Similar numbers of children described themselves as either lonely or isolated. Britain is a more fragmented society than France, of course; and, although the figures may be lower, there will be similar, equally stressing, stories to tell here: not least among those who do not speak French; or who are a long way from their native home.
In the account of Elijah and Elisha on their way from Gilgal to the Jordan, we can sense acutely Elisha’s visceral fear of being left alone as he clings-on to Elijah. ‘Stay here’ Elijah tells him; but Elisha is not ready to be left alone. Elisha’s anxiety may be eased for a short while as he walks with Elijah to Bethel and then to Jericho; but, no sooner have they arrived, and the prophets confront Elisha with the unavoidable truth: ‘Do you know that today the Lord will take your master from you.’ Elisha tells them to be silent. He knows. But he doesn’t want to hear it. Anyone who has accompanied a loved-one to the threshold of death will be able to identify with Elisha. The doctors, and may be other family members, are telling us the unavoidable truth; but these are precious days and hours. We know the truth of the situation, we tell ourselves. But what is so blatantly obvious to you is too overwhelming for me to hear right now.
Mark’s account of the Transfiguration seems, on first reading, to give us the other side of the coin. Jesus is not alone, even though he’s in a lonely place, high up a mountain. Not only are three of his close followers with him, but so is Elijah and Moses. This is not merely fellowship in the present moment. They embrace the companionship of their forebears of long ago. It must have been quite a gathering. Peter is so enchanted by the experience that he thinks they should stick around for a while, and offers to provide the temporary accommodation. On the face of it, this seems like a contented gathering of friends, with no hint of the fear that will soon descend.
But lurking beneath the surface of Mark’s Gospel, and this episode in particular, is a dark and troubling reality. Jesus may be surrounded by friends, but he is burdened by a secret: a secret that Peter, James and John have not yet fully grasped. They have been told, but it hasn’t sunk in. Jesus knows something they cannot get their heads around – and now is not the time to press the point. He has to bear it alone.
May be you know what that’s like: being surrounded by others but feeling completely alone? You know something you cannot share with others – at least, not now. You drop the odd hint, but no-one seems to be picking it up. You have been told that your job will finish at the end of the month; but how do you tell your partner, now there’s another baby on the way? You’re with friends on the holiday of a lifetime, but you can’t enjoy it because you were told by the doctor, a few days before jetting off, that you have a potentially life-threatening illness. You say nothing because you don’t want to spoil the fun for everyone else. As they laugh, you are becoming more anxious and withdrawn. It’s not that hard to feel lonely in a crowd – or even among friends.
Part of Mark’s skill as a narrator is that he lets us in on the secret, even as the main characters of the plot remain blissfully unware. The transfiguration of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel comes quickly after Jesus’s own prediction of how he must suffer and die; but that is quickly forgotten on the mountain top. Or is it? Are the disciples doing as Elisha did? Do they know, but not want to hear that their master will soon be taken from them?
As we stand at the threshold of the season of Lent, we cannot forget that the glory of the transfiguration will turn out to be the glory of Christ’s self emptying for us in his death on the cross. The darkness, the isolation and loneliness of Good Friday, even as the crowds gathered, is an essential part of understanding the Transfiguration.
As if to accentuate the point, Mark tells of another, similar episode near the end of the Gospel. Jesus goes into a lonely place to pray, with the same three closest friends. Again, his friends still don’t fully grasp what’s happening. This time, they are not up a mountain: they are in a garden. Jesus is as anxious and stressed as it is possible to be. He even tells his friends of his inner turmoil; but they fall asleep, which makes his isolation more acute. They hear but don’t understand. It’s tempting to wonder whether it’s the same story told in two completely different ways? Certainly, it speaks to us, not only of what happened then; but also of what can happen now – for all of us.
One of the cruel ironies behind the report on loneliness, with which I began, is that Jo Cox, who cared so much about other peoples’ loneliness would, herself, become a victim of someone’s isolation. Thomas Mair, the man convicted of her murder, had become increasingly remote from his family, his neighbours and the life of his local community. People knew him; but they knew nothing about him. Assuming him to be odd, but kind, they carried on and kept their distance. They could not know what was festering as he withdrew into his own self-referential world. There, no-one could encourage him, challenge him, or draw him out of himself into a different way of seeing the world and other people. When I am in my own little world, I hear only my own voice, my own opinions, my own anxieties, my own way of seeing others. Fear speaks to fear. Confusion compounds confusion. Aggression shouts and screams to aggression. No wonder isolation and loneliness are severely restricting: it lowers our sense of self-worth, and has a diminishing impact our physical as well as our mental health. This can be as true for individuals as for communities, organisations, churches and governments.
When Jesus came down from the mountain top, after that mysterious and glorious moment, he was clear about the future, even if his friends were still confused by it. He knew that his loneliness and isolation had to be turned outwards towards the wider world. He knew the world would only see the glory of the Father by him accepting the pain of the cross, for the love of humankind in all its glorious diversity. He knew that the glory of God would be seen, not in suppressing and controlling, or insisting on his own way of seeing things, but in obedience to the Father; in the sacrificial, self-giving love that is wide open to the pain and potential of every child of every race.
That is why the most primitive instincts of the Christian Church are to resist loneliness and isolation, and to draw each one of us, who are baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection, into a world-embracing community of love and service. The glory of Christ, which shines out from the deep but dazzling darkness of the cross, is a new creation, a new humanity, in which you and I are given a future full of promise and hope. That is the secret that we are called to share with the world, that ‘God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness”… has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God…’ In that light, we see the world as God sees it. We see other people as God sees them. In the self-giving service of Christ, crucified and glorified, we are called out of own little world and into (what the Book of Common Prayer calls) ‘the mystical body of…Christ’ which is ‘the blessed company of all faithful people’ who are ‘heirs through hope of [God’s] everlasting kingdom.’
That gives us a broad and generous vision of the future, of the human race, and of the mission of the Church. Most of all, it opens our eyes to the fullness of God’s being, not as isolated and withdrawn; but as a glorious unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To whom be glory now, and unto to the end of the ages. Amen.