Monday 12 February 2024

Light dispels Darkness

Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night

Reflection at morning worship for the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 13the February 2024

Sometimes, the human world seems so full of hatred, and so empty of love, doesn’t it! If we turn on the news, read a newspaper, flip through social media, we are assaulted by images of frustration and anger, meanness and cruelty, death and destruction. Terrorist attacks, bombardment of civilians, schools and hospitals, anti-immigrant and racist chants, arson attacks on places of refuge. We must name all this hatred in the world for what it is, wholesale evil and sin, at a different level to the retail sin of our individual failures to be the people God wants us to be.

In today’s reading (1 John 2:1-11) St John calls on us as individual Christians to reject such hateful sin and open ourselves to the love of God.

He begins by reminding us that we who call ourselves Christians are not immune from sin. We can seek and find forgiveness through Jesus Christ, not just for ourselves but for the whole world, on one condition. The condition is that we obey Christ’s commandments.

What are these commandments? Jesus has summarised them for us in words we hear at every communion service: ‘You shall love the Lord your God’, and ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. And he teaches us that every person is our neighbour, even those we find difficult or do not like. These are the commandments that Jesus lived by in his life on earth. And if we are to live in God’s loving forgiveness, then we must imitate him by doing our best to live up to them in our own lives, ‘to walk just as he walked’, in John’s words.

John goes on to talk about light and darkness. Light, of course, stands for goodness, truth, beauty, and all that radiates from the love of God. It dispels darkness, evil, lies, ugliness, and all that conceals the love of God. Do not be deceived by appearances, he tells us, ‘The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining’.

At the Last Supper, Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment (John 13:34-38), ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’

John points out this ‘new commandment’ is not really new at all. It is implied by the ‘old commandment’ to love your neighbour. But Jesus is impressing on his disciples, and so on all who call themselves Christians, that we are under a special obligation to love one another. John urges us as Christians to love one another and walk in the light of the true love of God, however difficult we may find it. The alternative is to stumble around in darkness in a world filled with hatred.

We must live in faith and trust that love will overcome the hatred we see in the human world about us, just as light dispels darkness.

Sunday 11 February 2024


The Brocken Spectre – if you are interested in more of the physics

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Transfiguration Sunday 11th February 2024, the last before Lent

Mountain tops are special places, places where we feel awed by the immensity of God’s creation.

When the weather is good, the distant views reveal how puny we really are. When the clouds close in, we experience isolation from all that is familiar. And when the wind blows rain or hail or snow in our face, we understand our own frailty and vulnerability.

Like most of us, I suppose, I’ve loved walking and climbing in mountains, though I’m less able for it nowadays, sadly. I have vivid memories of many climbs. Climbing Keeper Hill as a child with my parents, each time I thought I was near the top another ridge revealed itself, until at the final summit half of Ireland was laid out in front of me. Climbing a peak called Le Dent du Chat near Annecy in France as a teenager, Mont Blanc and the snow peaks of the alps began to rise above the opposite ridge as I neared the top. And climbing Lugnaquilla by myself in my 40s - on a whim, unsuitably prepared – the cloud closed in after 5 minutes on the summit, and it grew cold, very cold – I was lucky to fall in with a soldier with a compass walking from the Glen of Imaal to Glenmalure, who showed me the right way down.

In today’s Gospel (Mark 9:2-9), Mark tells the story of Peter, James and John’s very special mountain top experience with Jesus.

High on the mountain, Peter, James and John see Jesus ‘transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white’ – his appearance is changed: the Greek word translated as ‘transfigured’ is from the same root as ‘metamorphosis’. Alongside him they see two figures talking to him, whom they recognise as Moses and Elijah, the two preeminent figures of Judaism, representing the Law and the Prophets.

Peter, always the impulsive one, says, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’. Peter does not want this emotional moment to end – such a human response!

Then the cloud closes in around them.  They are terrified. And they hear a voice saying, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!’ When the cloud clears, they look around, and they see only Jesus, who orders them not to tell anyone what they have experienced, ‘until the Son of Man (has) risen from the dead’.

Their experience, which we call the Transfiguration, reveals Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God. It must have been very important to them, because they remembered it and passed on their story after the Resurrection, so that it could be told to us not just by Mark, but also by Matthew and Luke.

There is a possible scientific explanation for what Peter, James and John saw.

High on a mountain, with cloud around, is precisely when we may encounter an optical effect called a ‘glory’. In this effect sunlight is scattered back from water droplets in a mist, as a glowing halo - the technical term for it is Mie scattering.

The most famous example is the ‘Brocken Spectre’, so named because of sightings on the Brocken, the highest peak of the Harz Mountains in Germany. This appears when a low sun is behind a climber who is looking downwards into mist from a ridge or peak. The spectre is the shadow of the observer projected onto the mist, and it is surrounded by the glowing halo of a glory. On the sheet you should have you can see a photo of one, and if you’re interested you can follow the web link to find out more.

You might be lucky enough to see a glory yourselves, as I have. I saw it when I looked down from a plane at the shadow it cast on a cloud. The shadow was surrounded with a halo of light – this was the glory.

I imagine Peter and James and John close together on the mountain, with Jesus praying a little bit away, as the clouds swirl around them. Where Jesus has been standing, they each suddenly see a glowing figure – it’s a shadow, their own shadow, cast on a cloud, wrapped in a glory. And the two other shadows beside it are those of their companions, whom they take to be Moses and Elijah.

This possible scientific explanation of the Transfiguration should not disturb our faith.

I find that it helps me to believe that the Transfiguration really did take place. It was not invented by the Gospel writers to serve their own artistic or theological needs.

Their experience of hearing a voice from heaven also rings very true to me. When human beings suddenly realise something of vital importance, something which changes everything, we often talk of having a ‘flash of inspiration’ or ‘hearing a voice’. There are many such reports of deeply emotional religious experiences, not only within our own Christian tradition, but also from other faiths.

I believe that God is present in and works through the laws of the universe he created. The disciples accurately reported what they saw, even if they could not understand the physics. The true wonder and glory of the Transfiguration is how the subtle working out of the natural laws of God’s creation testify to its goodness, and God’s love for it, and for us.

If this physical explanation is correct, it should not change one whit our awe and wonder at God’s power and glory.

What matters, surely is what the Transfiguration reveals to Peter, James and John - and to us too - about the nature of Jesus and his relationship with God.

They saw Jesus transfigured, as ‘the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’, in St Paul’s words from today’s 1st reading (2 Corinthians 4:3-6). The voice they heard told them to listen to him, and this they did. From then on Jesus intensified his teaching to them, preparing them for their role as apostles after his death.

I believe the Transfiguration was the moment on their long road when Peter, James and John realised their complete commitment to Jesus and his teaching. Starting from their call in Galilee, this road led them ultimately to Jerusalem, to the Cross, to the Resurrection, to the Ascension, and on to Pentecost, where they started to blossom as Christ’s Church.

And as Christians it should inspire each one of us to make our own commitment to follow Jesus as his disciples. ‘For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’.

I finish in prayer.

Holy God, mighty and immortal,
you are beyond our knowing,
yet we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ,
whose compassion illumines the world.
Transform us into the likeness of the love of Christ,
who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity,
the same Jesus Christ, our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.