Last Sunday, we were taken to the desert, with Jesus fasting for forty days and forty nights, the original Lent.
This Sunday we are taken up a mountain, the Lord leading his three closest disciples, Peter, James and John, and being transfigured before them. Last Sunday, the lesson was fasting and spiritual combat. This Sunday, it’s prayer.
The Lord is transfigured and three disciples witness it. It is all a parable on prayer, almost a catechesis. Jesus went up the mountain to pray, says St Luke in his account.
So, what is prayer?
Here’s the first thing: Jesus took Peter, James and John, and led them. What is prayer? It’s a divine initiative. It’s something the Lord does in us, a work of God. He led them up a high mountain “where they could be alone”. Even when we are walking down Union St or on a bus, prayer is always a going aside from our usual stuff. Switching off the phone, so to speak. “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” That room is our own inside, our interiority, our heart – wherever we are physically. What is prayer? A going apart to be with the Lord.
“And Jesus was transfigured before them”. His inner truth shone out, unfiltered. What is prayer? Not usually a sudden transformation, like the Lord’s, but a lifelong haul, a steady practice, and real, very real. And one which reveals the grace of sonship our baptism gives us. Nothing so reveals, nothing so decides what kind of person we are as whether we pray or not. And the Gospel mentions specifically Jesus’ face and Jesus’ clothes. Our Lord’s face shone like the sun, says the Gospel. A face reveals our capacity to see God – “face to face”, as we say, God’s face casting light on ours. This is prayer. And then his clothes became “as white as the light”. “Clothes” signify our life in the world, our interaction with others. What is prayer? A change of life, a new radiance seeping through into daily things.
Then, “suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared to them; they were talking with him”. Here’s another teaching. Moses and Elijah stand respectively for the Old Testament Law and the prophets. Our Lord’s own prayer must have been a constant conversation with his Father through the Scriptures, a dialogue with the Law and the prophets he would fulfil. For us too, prayer is a conversation, a dialogue with Scripture. In Scripture God speaks to us and in prayer we speak to him. The Bible, if you like, is the table where we sit, listen and talk with God. Prayer is not unanchored, vague. Its food is the Word.
Then, predictably, Peter barges in. He interrupts. He’s swept up in the scene and he’s got an idea. He wants to do something practical, make three tents, “one for you”, he tells Jesus, and “one for Moses and one for Elijah.” There’s a teaching on prayer here too. We are praying and suddenly something interrupts it – if not from outside, then from inside. If you want to pray, expect distractions. Some are harmless, and we just pull ourselves gently back from them. Some are more alarming: we start getting angry about something someone said to us twenty years ago. Or, like Peter, we start having bright ideas, thinking they’re from God. They may be, but they may not be. In reality, Peter was trying to take over, to run the show – he was famous for this. He was about to cajole James and John into setting up tents. This wasn’t prayer; it was Peter talking to himself.
“And while he was still speaking a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came from the cloud: ‘this is my Son, the Beloved, he enjoys my favour, listen to him.’” Peter’s bright ideas are gently side-lined, and the Trinity takes over: Jesus is there transfigured, the Beloved Son, the Holy Spirit is symbolised in the cloud, and God the Father in the voice. What is prayer? Being taken over by Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Sensing the inner wealth of God. “Listen to him”, says the Voice, not yourself. And so the disciples “fell on their faces overcome with fear”. They are felled God’s otherness. Their own “stuff” falls away, and they are shaken to the core. They can no longer see, or perhaps they can only see the ground, the dust from which they came. They are “reduced to nothing” in their own eyes. We might think of the conversion of St Paul here. What is prayer? It is a kind of death.
“Then Jesus came up and touched them.” What is prayer? The loving, healing, empowering touch of Christ. “Stand up”, he says, “rise”. What is prayer? A falling and a rising. It’s a resurrection. “Do not be afraid”. It’s love you’re experiencing. “And when they raised their eyes, they saw no one but only Jesus”. What is prayer? What’s its upshot? How do we know when our prayer is real? When we see just Jesus. Having our eyes, not on the ground, but on him. Having him as our path. And the courage to go down the mountain, away from the sheltering tents, into the world’s wildness.
“Tell no one about it, he says, until the Son of man has risen from the dead”. One last time, what is prayer? Something secret, something personal. And its beauty will only be known in the risen world to come.
Brothers and Sisters, last Sunday the Spirit led Jesus to the desert. Today Jesus led his disciples up the mountain. Let’s follow these leadings. They lead us to reality. We’re not meant to be mediocre but transfigured. This Lent, let’s give prayer a chance to blossom, to rise, to “easter” in us.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 5 March 2023