I was reading a book on the history of maps. Humans have used maps as a way of making sense of the world and as an aid to getting around. The earliest known map goes back around 2,500 years. It shows the sea surrounding the known world, with a few key cities marked, such as Babylon. The early maps were a bit lacking in terms of showing the whole world, and one country in relation to another, because the people who were making the maps simply didn’t have the knowledge: they hadn’t explored far enough, and they didn’t have the tools for setting it down.
Early mapmakers used different lenses to view the world, and the way they understood the world influenced how they shaped the world in their maps. Various places were regarded as the centre of the world, the belly button of the world, and these cities would literally be placed in the middle of the map, and the rest of the world set out in relation to them. And in the early Islamic maps, where the direction of Mecca was the most important thing to show, which was usually in the south, then south was shown at the top of the map. For Christian maps, east was the most important direction, so some maps had east at the top. It was a while before the convention of having north at the top developed. No map ever had west at the top, because the west was where the sun died, where it was believed we all go when we die. And whether you have north or south or east at the top of the map changes how you view the world.
There is no such thing as a perfect map: the world is constantly changing, the shape of countries alters with coastal erosion or accretion. When I was a child, a lot of countries appeared on the map in red, the extent of the British empire. That’s not the case now – there is no empire. And the science of mapmaking is improving all the time. So there is a constant work in improving the maps.
Maps are not just about the geographical world. Maps can also be used to show politics or economics or religion in relation to the physical world. They arise out of how we see the world.
When Jesus lived on earth, he changed the way we see the world. And the incident in today’s Gospel reading changes the way the disciples understand Jesus and set a new direction for his journey on earth.
The disciples had come to know Jesus as a preacher, a teacher, a healer, a miracle-worker. They had seen the way he engaged with people, changing their lives. They had seen the way in which he challenged the religious and political authorities by the things he said and just by being himself. Then Jesus asked his disciples about who they thought he was, and explained to them that he would have to suffer and to die, and that’s not what they wanted to hear.
Today’s Gospel comes in six days later. Jesus takes Peter, James and John – the core team – up a mountain. And when they get there, something truly amazing happens. Jesus is transfigured: he shines with light inside and out and is changed. Two figures appear with him, and the disciples recognise them as Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the first and foremost prophet. They three of them have a conversation, which the disciples are not part of. Then a cloud overshadows them and the event is over. They know something amazing has happened, but they do not know what and it will take time before they understand it fully – if they ever do. And somehow it changes everything. It changes the way they understand Jesus. Peter had declared that Jesus was the Messiah – this experience confirms that and shows how awesome that is. Suddenly Jesus is bigger and greater than they ever imagined.
From now on in the Gospel, Jesus is heading towards the cross. The direction is clear. He has started telling his disciples that he is going to Jerusalem to die, but that’s not part of their picture, the map they have planned in their own heads for what being a follower of Jesus is all about. Jesus is constantly having to alter their expectations and their understanding.
On Wednesday, Lent begins, and this marks for us the beginning of Jesus’ journey to the cross. Over these next few weeks, we will walk with Jesus along the way. And we remember our own mortality. At noon on Ash Wednesday, we will have a service to mark each one with an ash cross, remembering that we are dust, and we will all return to dust. Do come to that service if you can. And every Tuesday, we will meet as a group to learn and grow together.
Lent is a time when we should be prepared to have our own interior maps corrected and realigned. We are all encourage to make a special effort to come closer to Jesus, to understand a little more, know a little better just how much we are loved by God, and find ways of loving God and our fellow humans a little more.
People take on various kinds of spiritual discipline in Lent: reading a spiritual book, taking part in the Lent Group, praying a little more, spending more time with God, or giving more towards charity or the church – almsgiving is one of the essential spiritual disciplines. Fasting is an ancient spiritual discipline that we are not very good at these days in the church – we tend to think of it as giving up chocolate or wine, rather than taking it seriously, but it can be a very beneficial discipline.
The transfiguration changes Jesus and the way the disciples comprehend Jesus. It changes the direction of travel – now the journey is towards the cross. We need to open up our own maps of how the world works in relation to God, and allow God to give us a bigger, clearer, more godly perception, so that we can walk the way of Christ ever more surely.