‘After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them up a high mountain apart, and he was transfigured before them: his face shone like the sun, and his clothing was as white as the light.’
We drove up the mountain of the Transfiguration, competing as kindly as we could with other pilgrims for the buses. On the way back, while we were waiting a long time for the van to take us back down my feet became very cold. I was reminded of the cold winders of my London childhood, waiting for a bus while my face, hands and feet froze. The glorious human body is prone to many afflictions and limitations. It can be transfigured into light, become like a rainbow, even raised from the dead and yet have chills, aches and pains. It can flourish and have its life-term extended and it can sadly fail.
Health and fitness is a knife-edge, a tightrope that we can easily and quickly fall off. For the first time in a hundred years life-expectancy in the UK, after ten years of very unfairly distributed austerity is declining, dramatically so among women in poorer social groups. Yet the human body, for all its fragilities, is still the sacred language of Christian faith just as Sanskrit, Pali, Hebrew and Arabic are for other communities. Latin, Greek, Aramaic were not the language that the Word of God was translated into in Nazareth or what exploded in the pure energy of light on the mountain. It was the body that knows cold feet, pimples as well as ecstasy.
In his chapter on the observance of Lent and many other places in the Rule, St Benedict describes the attention and discipline, the respect and care that the body deserves. Unlike other spiritual teachers, he does not denigrate the body or suggest that suffering should be induced in order to bring us closer to God. The body is an ever-changing companion and an instrument of the spiritual journey. Treat it badly, over-indulgent or too severe and it will not be able to play the music it is meant for. At the end of the journey we treat the physical body with honour because it has served us as well as it could and because we have now been clothed with another body. Spirit, said Teillhard de Chardin is matter incandescent.
When we come to the end of Lent we hope to be ready to enter the mysteries of the Resurrection and see how the body of Jesus manifests in different forms, one of which is ourselves. The Transfiguration reminds us that we are even now, in this physical form, earthen vessels carrying the light of God which will in time transform us entirely into itself.