Fresh air from Cornwall


Fresh air from Cornwall

Published: 17th February, 2024

The Sunday next before Lent
2 Kings 2:1-12
Psalm 50:1-6
Mark 9:2-9

In the Name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Whilst on one of my childhood holidays in the West Country I remember finding a particularly enterprising souvenir shop.  It was stocked with tiny empty bottles for sale labelled “Fresh air from Cornwall”.

I think most people would feel invigorated by standing on a Cornish clifftop and filling their lungs with the gusting wind blowing in off the ocean; it’s hard to imagine anyone feeling any benefit from opening a tiny bottle and inhaling a few millilitres of “Fresh air from Cornwall”.  It’s obviously ridiculous.

And yet, if we stop to think about it, perhaps our buying of souvenirs, even our taking of holiday photos, have a whiff of “Fresh air from Cornwall” about them.  We want to bottle our experiences of moments and places, and yet we know that these experiences cannot be recovered; even going back to the same place for our holidays is no guarantee of recreating a fondly remembered experience.  The precious experiences we want to bottle are the product of forces that are mostly beyond our control – our mood, the mood of others around us, the weather, and so on.  The moment cannot be recaptured simply by breathing the same air, or viewing the same scene, or by eating the same pasty; at best these things might make our memories a little more vivid, but the moment itself has gone.

Perhaps we can also detect a whiff of “Fresh air from Cornwall” in Peter’s desire to build dwellings for Jesus, Moses and Elijah in today’s gospel.  Peter wants to bottle his extraordinary experience.  Jesus is revealed in His glory alongside Moses and Elijah, the great prophets of Israel; the hopes that Peter has attached to Jesus seem to have been vindicated.  It’s easy to understand why Peter would want to preserve that moment, to remain on the mountain with the glorified Jesus and with Moses and Elijah, with the controversies and conflicts and dangers of the world below a seeming irrelevance.  It’s easy to understand Peter, and yet he has got it wrong, and in more than one way.

Peter has got it wrong because he attempts to control things that are beyond his control.  Peter has got it wrong because he attempts to bottle an intense encounter with the Divine.  The glimpse he is granted of Jesus in his glory, in communion with the prophets of Israel, is a gift from God, a gift to be accepted simply as it is.  Encounters with the Divine cannot be bottled and taken home; they cannot be captured in a photograph album.  God strengthens us by granting us occasional, ineffable experiences of His presence; but God strengthens us too by denying us such experiences, and the initiative must and can only be God’s.

And Peter has got it wrong because he longs for Jesus in his glory, but he has not yet learned to long for Jesus in his suffering.

The story reminded me of the words of Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ: “Jesus today has many who love His heavenly kingdom, but few who carry His cross”.  Peter would learn in the end the necessity of carrying that cross, but it would take time.  At the Transfiguration, he hadn’t got there yet.

On the mountain, Jesus is revealed in His glory, but it is His departure that he talks about with Moses and Elijah.  On the mountain, the glory and the cross are held together.  Like Peter we must learn to love and to follow Jesus both as Christ crucified and as Christ risen and glorified.  Like Peter we must learn to love and follow Jesus in his glory and in his suffering.  For the day will come when on another hilltop the skies will darken but no voice will be heard, and Jesus will be revealed as the One whose self-offering extends to the acceptance of suffering and abandonment.

What might all this mean for us in our prayer and in our worship and in our lives as Christians?  What might all this mean for us, gathered here to celebrate the Eucharist?

In the first place, we should remember that we follow a way of glory, but also a way of suffering, of sacrifice, and at times even of abandonment and desolation.  In our lives we cannot expect to be spared the pain and the loss that is the common lot of human life; for Christians these things take on a special significance as means of grace and of growth, things that bring us closer to Jesus.

And even in our prayer and our worship, we will from time to time experience what the poet RS Thomas once called …the hard spell / Of weather that is between God / And himself.  This too can be a source of strength and growth.

And we should resist any notion that in prayer and in worship we have somehow to conjure up God.  God is present.  Sometimes, for most of us I suspect very rarely, God will allow us some glimpse, some sense, some special perception of that presence. More often, such glimpses will not be available to us. Such things are beyond our control.  Our business is simply to be sufficiently quiet and sufficiently attentive that we do not miss these moments when they are given to us.  Our business is to follow Jesus to the mountain to pray, and to watch and to wait there with Him.

And we should give thanks that Jesus understands our need for something tangible, for something we can see and feel and taste.  And so in His goodness He has given us something much more than a souvenir of His earthly life, something much more than a photograph in an album.  For in the Sacrament we celebrate here this morning He gives us himself.  He feeds us in the Sacrament not because we have found a way of bottling Jesus, but because we are open to His initiative.  We are here in obedience to Jesus‘ command, we celebrate the Sacrament of His Body and His blood in obedience to His instruction, and we are confident in His presence with us because we trust in His promises given in sacred scripture to be with us, to feed us, and to give Himself to us, and in these holy mysteries we share and participate in His sacrifice and even in His glory.

And so, as we prepare to celebrate this our sacrifice of thanks and praise in accordance with our Lord’s command, let us join with Peter and say, “Lord, it is good for us to be here”.

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.