Brides and expectant mothers are, by social convention, expected to be radiant. They are usually described in this way even if they are wracked with nerves or feeling at their worst. Perhaps it’s the glow associated with excitement which, in both sexes, can change skin texture and colour, brighten eyes and so forth. But even the most radiant person on earth would not have others diving for cover, putting their hands over their eyes and cowering against their light.
That, however, is the reported reaction of the Hebrew tribes in the desert when Moses came down from his mountain encounter with YHWH, their God. It was a fact universally acknowledged throughout the history of Israel and Judah that it was dangerous to encounter the radiant glory of God. When Elijah had his encounter, he hid in a crevasse until the glory had passed by. When the High Priests of the Hebrew tribes went – perhaps only one a year – into the Holy of Holies inside the nomadic sacred tent, they veiled their faces. This was to protect themselves and the people they would meet afterwards. That experience of dangerous radiation was repeated in their later, settled history. The Temple rituals from King David’s time onwards required the High Priest to veil up before venturing into the inner sanctum and experience the glory of God. This glory – they called it the shekinah – was said to be visible between the tall carved figures of angels atop the Ark of the Covenant. It was awe-ful glory, terrible to behold.
So it was that every ethnic Jew and every Gentile convert to Judaism throughout the Roman Empire who heard the story we heard today about Jesus and his mountain top experience would have understood immediately what was going on. Jesus had, wittingly or otherwise, encountered the glory of God. Small wonder the three disciples with him were gibbering inconsequentially about knocking up some bivouacs: but, most of all, they were keeping their heads down.
St Paul, of course, was a person steeped in these traditions. But Paul did not merely remind his hearers about how the shekinah of God appeared to Jesus, and how it emitted a voice. He went much, much further, and leaves his hearers, then and now, with something that should both startle and encourage us.
Paul had two ways of talking about how the glory of God affects us. One was to talk of God’s grace; how God’s grace changes our lives. Now, I freely admit that I do not often see evidence of my life transformed above the ordinary: perhaps your experience is like mine – perhaps not. But I don’t often see that I have done anything, or been involved with other people and events in ways beyond ordinary human experience. Most of the time, I bumble along trying to avoid harm to myself, to others and to the environment we share. I try to do my bit to relieve some of the suffering in the world, near and far. But mine – yours too? – is a pretty ordinary and undistinguished life. Just occasionally, however, I seem to catch a glimpse of greater possibilities, and find the energy and the vision to see how things might be different. In my better moments – in yours too I imagine – we go for the vision of what could be: it might be the humble food bank for people far worse off than are we. It might be a helping hand – unaware of a power beyond our power that’s ready to move through it – that can make a sick person strong again, or a dying person confident and loved. It might be a visionary decision of a local authority officer who rises to meet a human crisis, or a nurse who dares to blow the whistle. Often it is the quiet person who speaks out when others are spoken against with harshness or hatred because of their race, their creed, their sexual orientation. The power to step out of our ordinariness for a moment is given us from – where? from whom? God knows, because at that moment, says Paul, we radiate the glory of God.
Paul had another way of talking about this, beside talking of God’s grace. He spoke of theosis. He wrote, of course, in Greek. If he had written in English, he would have said something like “becoming God” or, forgive the clumsy translation, Godisation. In the churches founded in our western part of the Roman Empire, we speak – perhaps too easily – of God’s grace. But in the churches founded in the eastern part of that Empire, they speak of theosis. God’s grace, says Paul – hold your breath – is about becoming God. Christians in Russia, or Greece, or Turkey, or Syria, in large parts of Eastern Europe, are more used to this language. Their faith and their worship are about becoming God – as is ours if we are to believe Paul. The message is clear and not a little scary. Paul says, when you next look in your mirror, you will be looking, by one degree after another, into the face and the glory of God. That is because you have agreed, by one degree after another, to give yourself to God, to allow God to transform you until you become what God is.
Do not despair. Do not say – “not me: I’m not up to it.” Of course, you’re not, any more than I am. But you don’t have to be up to it. God will do this, is doing this insofar as you allow it to take place. This is not the opinion of one preacher. It is God’s promise to you, given in the gospel we heard today, and expounded by St Paul. So let it be.