'A Double Sunday'
The envelope was delivered anonymously by hand. There was no name or address: it simply said, 'For Sunday 11th February 2018: to be opened in advance.' When I opened it, I found a photograph and a negative. Both were brittle with age and needed careful handling.
I laid the photograph on the desk, and raised the negative up to the light of the window. Its shiny surface reflected the light, making it difficult to decipher. There seemed to be a hill set against a very white background. On the top of the hill were three smudges or scratches, but on closer inspection they proved to be crosses against the sky. That would explain the white background of the negative, which in a developed photograph would become black, like the black of the darkness that came over all the land at the time of the crucifixion. The crucifixion? - how could that be? No one at the crucifixion could possibly have had a camera - it was two millennia too early for that! Where, then, did this negative of the crucifixion come from, and what did it mean?
I turned to the back and white photograph. It, too, showed a hill against the light, with three figures standing together on the summit. The clothes and the face of the central figure were glistening with light, transfigured, you might almost say, with a heavenly glory. Was this a photograph of the Transfiguration on Mount Hermon? If so, just as with the negative, how was it taken, and how had it survived?.
And there was another thing. This photograph and non-matching negative had been put carefully together in the envelope as though they were a pair, never to be separated. Did they belong together? Are the Transfiguration and the Crucifixion linked? I held them together, side by side, and they seemed to form what artists call a diptych, two pictures forming a single pair. These two were meant to be looked at together, to be compared and contrasted, and I began to think of them in that way.
The photograph of the Transfiguration shows a semi-private occasion, when Jesus withdrew from the crowds and took only Peter, James, and John with him up the mountain. As he stood on the summit, apart even from them, his clothes began to glisten, his face to shine, and he himself was uplifted and exalted. He was flanked by two religious giants from the past, Moses and Elijah, with whom he deeply conversed. As the three stood there, all was light, all was glory.
The negative of the Crucifixion, on the other side of the pair, is almost the opposite of the photograph. It shows Jesus, not exalted but humiliated in a public spectacle of shame and degradation. His clothes have been taken from him. He is lifted upon a cross and flanked, not by two saintly heroes, but by two criminals. As the three hang there, all is dark, seemingly irrecoverably dark.
So the negative and the photograph are opposites, but they have similarities. In both events there were three named onlookers: Moses, Elijah, and Peter at the Transfiguration; Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee at the Crucifixion. In both, Jesus was confessed as the Son of God - by the voice from heaven at the Transfiguration, and by the centurion at the Crucifixion. In the Transfiguration, people fell on their faces in terror; and in the Crucifixion people were overcome with fear. The two pictures, though they are opposites, run in parallel - one light, the other dark.
Of course, there never was an envelope, never was a photograph or a negative. But there was a Transfiguration and there was a Crucifixion, and, as a pair, they speak eloquently to us today. For today is a double Sunday: it is both the last Sunday in Epiphany and the Sunday before Lent. Ever since Christmas, we have been catching glimpses of the glory of Jesus as it is progressively unveiled in the Gospel story, culminating at last in the Transfiguration where we see that glory in its full splendour, and hear the voice from heaven, 'This is my Son, the beloved Son: listen to him!' Glory indeed!
But today is also the Sunday before Lent, the day when our thoughts begin to turn to the Passion and the Cross. Are we meant to think of that in terms of glory too, glory through obedience to God's will, glory though sacrifice, glory though suffering? Time will tell, as we work our way through Lent in due course. In the meantime, we have this to think about: today we have seen Jesus as God's Son, experiencing the whole gamut of human possibilities: he was exalted, and he was humiliated; he was surrounded by saints, and ringed by sinners; he was clothed with light, and wrapped in a mantle of darkness.
Jesus lived his life in the middle of the muddle of what it means to be a human being, and he is still living it there, still with us in every circumstance of life, whether of tears or triumph, joy or sorrow; still able to transform and transfigure our pain and hurt and the world's heartache until they become the glory that one day will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.
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