Transfiguration and Time Warps - 1 before Lent
One of last Christmas’ bestsellers was the posthumously published book of Professor Stephen Hawking’s final thoughts on various matters. Stephen Hawking was undoubtedly one of the greatest – and most famous – and most distinctive - of scientists of our age, and his books sell very well. How many people get through them is another matter - but I am having a go.
The topics he covers are certainly alluring. In the book – Brief Answers to Big Questions, he begins by writing a chapter in which he attempts to prove mathematically that there is no God. An ambitious task, which I don’t find convincing, and to be fair I think he does have his tongue-in-cheek as it were. And it all flies in the face of the famous idea by Karl Popper that in science you can never prove that something is the case, only that it isn’t. Theoretically anything can be disproved at any point, so any claim for anything has to be seen in the light of the possibility that one day it will be disproved. So, proving that there is no God, is much harder than believing that there is. And I don’t think Hawking - who is now buried in Westminster Abbey – I don’t think he succeeded in that little task.
Hawking also writes chapters on whether there is life in outer space. He thinks it mathematically likely, because while it is true that the circumstances for the creation of life require a great number of particular and helpful circumstances to coincide: on an infinite scale, with a potentially infinite number of galaxies, there surely is – as he would put it – somewhere else out there, where what has happened here has also happened, albeit differently. I am not qualified to comment on that. In fact, I don’t think anyone is - for or it is, of course, pure supposition. No-one is going to prove - or disprove it. He also wrote a chapter on whether we can predict the future. I haven’t read it yet, so I don’t know what it’s going to say…
And there is a chapter on time travel and whether it could ever be possible. And this has some bearing on our gospel reading. Hawking asks the question as to whether there is any point in hosting a party for time travellers – would you hope anyone would turn up? Would you?
He says this:
“in 2009 I held a party for time travellers in my college, Gonville and Caius in Cambridge, for a film about time travel. To ensure that only genuine time travellers came, I didn’t send out invitations until after the party. On the day of the party, I sat in the College hoping, but no-one came. I was disappointed but not surprised, because I had shown that general relativity is correct and energy density is positive, time travel is not possible. I would have been delighted if one of my assumptions had turned out to be wrong.”
Just imagine if someone had turned up. Or worse still, if someone had turned up, and in the excitement of being exposed as a useless physicist, he had then forgotten to send out the invitations afterwards…
This is the ‘Back to the Future’ conundrum - the ‘Grandfather Paradox’ - where if you go back in time and prevent yourself being born, then do you then exist? We can’t get our heads around it, and that’s why Hawking concludes his chapter by saying:
“Rapid space travel and travel back in time can’t be ruled out according to our present understanding. They would cause great logical problems, so let’s hope there is a Chronology Protection Law to prevent people going back and killing their parents. But science fiction fans need not lose heart. There’s hope in M-theory.”
M-Theory – the idea of the multiverse - requires an even greater leap of faith than anything promulgated by any religion, not leastly because it claims that there are up to eleven dimensions, only four of which we can even name!
But let’s return to our Gospel. Well, I say ‘return’ – of course I preached this sermon in 3015 for the last time, and I’ve just popped back to deliver it for the first time again, but none of you remember that because you weren’t even born in 3015.
Yet the question as to whether there can be time travel – Dr Who-like or otherwise - does touch on our gospel reading today. For we are told that Moses, Elijah and Jesus appear together – something which in conventional history is impossible. So there is definitely something odd going on in that time and place.
Astronomers tell us that as we look far out into space, we are looking further back in time. A speck of light that is a thousand light years away, has taken a thousand years to reach our eyes, so we are looking at something that occurred a thousand years ago. We are getting closer to looking back at, even recreating the experience of the Big Bang, 18.3 million years ago, or 18.3 million light years away. Space and time are connected irrevocably, and over great distances can even be considered to be inseparable. This is why, incidentally, some people reckon that the idea of Superman flying around the earth faster than the speed of light, would send him back in time – and that of course is how he saves Lois Lane. Clever, but, according to Stephen Hawking’s understanding of Einstein’s theory of general relativity – impossible.
So - and here’s the thing - what were Peter and James and John seeing? On one level they were witnessing a break in space and time such that Moses and Elijah and Jesus occupied the same space. The laws of physics and history were bent, or warped. I know Stephen Hawing says that can’t happen, but Stephen Hawking is dead, and God isn’t.
We know that Jesus, Moses and Elijah were not contemporaries, so the disciples were either imagining it; it was some kind of trick, or a trick of the light, or it was an experience of a new, divine dimension. Whatever it was, it was also a representation of Jesus, the new covenant, seen alongside the pillars of the old covenant: the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah). There could be no better place than a high mountain to give this vantage point over the whole of divine and human history. During it, Jesus’ form changed (that is what ‘transfiguration’ means). His body took on a glorious dimension: a foretaste of post-resurrection glory perhaps, revealing what was yet to come. Past present and future merge on top of the Mount of Transfiguration, and it’s almost as if Jesus was in two - or more - time dimensions at once.
That this happened on planet earth, two thousand years ago, witnessed by only a few but recorded for posterity is, naturally, bewildering. It is unnatural, breaching accepted conventions of history, geography, and physics. It is a truly supernatural event, alongside the ascension, and the resurrection. So, fantastical as it all may seem, when it comes to matters of faith, these are the zones we enter, these are the realms beyond our own of which we have a foretaste. Such things are not describable, provable it even accountable to science. Although perhaps this brings an insight into one of those dimensions that we cannot comprehend that Hawking says is part of the multiverse. But these are the events that really matter, and which take us beyond science, and also beyond the nice idea that Jesus was a special person with good things to say; a moral code to promulgate and a way of life to teach us to follow. Jesus is more than that, and this story reminds us, as the voice of God is recorded as saying, there and then, and here and now, that “This is my Son, the Beloved… listen to him”.
A special event for a special person – that’s not so surprising really. The Transfiguration is a high level, multi-dimensional meeting of heaven and earth, a midpoint of Jesus’ ministry, intersected by the past and the future, the human and the divine. After this there is no turning back, Jesus must descend to Jerusalem, to confront the authorities, preach the Kingdom, and face the inevitable and necessary consequences of human sin and divine incarnation.
This is why we have this reading on the Sunday before Lent. It’s all downhill from now on – Downhill to the Cross. And then of course – up – risen up in resurrection. So, as we approach Lent, we survey the road ahead. And we travel through a Lent in at least two time zones - we follow the way of the Cross, following Jesus’ journey through the Gospels. And simultaneously we travel in the now - the real time journey that elapses between now and Easter.
Do prepare for the journey of Lent: read, pray, give, love. Walk the way of Lent – ‘be At Home in Lent’, if you like, as an excellent book I know of puts it… or indeed be out and about in Lent. The Journey of Lent is both inside and out. Both here and now, and now and then.
But through it all - defining and marking it all out is that cross-shaped intersection of time and space, scored into past, present and future by the incarnation - the word made flesh of God in Christ. This enables us to say both that Christ walked on earth, died and rose again in a particular place and time, but also that he is with us here and now as well as there and then, in bread and wine and in the fellowship we share as the body of Christ.
And this is a gift in which we can share and rejoice now and into eternity. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 03/03/19