This sermon is indebted to Archbishop Michael Ramsay’s retreat address on Transfiguration reprinted in Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness. (Oxford University Press, 2001), 670.
A Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany
Sharon and I visited the Vancouver Art Museum on Friday to see 19th Century French paintings on loan from the Brooklyn Museum. For me, it’s the light in the landscapes that holds me, has me lingering to gaze. It’s the light.
It’s the light on water and sky that brings people to Boulevard Park, the sunsets and sunrises around here that amaze us, that dazzle our eyes and lift our soul.
And it’s the light in today’s readings. The resplendent light of Moses’ face coming down from the mountain from converse with the Divine. The splendor of a Jesus transfigured in dazzling light, bathing in an aura of brilliance that also includes Moses and Elijah.
The light of God shines through the biblical tradition and our tradition of prayer and worship.
There are 35 pages in the Book of Common Prayer that the word “shine” is used. The word “light” appears on 193 pages. Jesus Christ is the light of the world. Epiphany is the season of light, where before each Eucharistic Prayer we acknowledge God’s gift of Christ as “a new light to shine in our hearts.” We pray to be “illumined by the Word and Sacraments”, to “shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory.” Today we read that “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”
We read of Jesus transfigured today, and we hear that as we look on the light of Christ we will be transformed ourselves, becoming more our true selves.
There are so many ways to explore this, and today some thoughts from Archbishop Canterbury Michael Ramsey have me thinking how this applies to our lives in our day and time.
Ramsey tells us about reading the historian Arnold Toynbee’s reflections on various human responses to what Toynbee described as a “declining and frustrated civilization.” And I have to say that when I read these words they had a very contemporary ring.
The first attitude in a declining and frustrated civilization is archaism. This is the “let’s put the clock back” attitude, seeking to reconstruct a state of affairs that had previously existed, or that we imagine to have existed. This is the “I don’t like the new news, I like the old news better,” to borrow a line from Bob Dylan. This is the “back in the good old days” attitude.
The second attitude is futurism, the impulse to despair of the current order and try to force our way forward to some totally new state of affairs, so new that it can only be attained by violence.
The third attitude is escapism; we despair of everything and we retreat into a private zone of spirituality that we think is apart from the troubles of the world.
Ramsay notes that Toynbee rejected these three attitudes in favor of what he actually labeled transfiguration,which he defined: “to accept the situation just as it is and to carry it into a larger context which makes sense of it and gives the power to grapple with it.”
Ramsay, finds these words of Toynbee “very suggestive” for Christians in finding the meaning of transfiguration.
The Transfiguration story helps us accept the situation we are in, and carry it into a larger context, and that larger context for us is Jesus Christ crucified and risen.
The story of Jesus transfigured takes place as Jesus is turning toward Jerusalem, which has for him an ominous prospect. In Jerusalem he will suffer and die. And the Gospel writers want us to know that this event is to be carried into a larger context in which this will make sense. The light that bathes this story is that of the glory of God, and the glory of God is to be revealed in the suffering Christ.
The glory of God is God amid human suffering and confusion. The events that will take place in Jerusalem are not a defeat for God or the Christ of God. The crucifixion of Jesus will show us God with us in the depths. Rather than God abandoning us to suffering, God is with us in suffering.
Our participation personally in this transfiguration happens as we allow our suffering, the suffering of others, to be lifted into this larger context. The transformative presence and power of God is not frustrated by the decline and fall of civilizations. The light of Christ shone brilliantly, for example, in the community of the French Protestants of Le Chambon sur Lignon in France during the Nazi occupation of France. They were shaped by the Gospel story of Jesus in their worship life. Their French Protestant ancestors had suffered tremendous religious persecution. Powerfully influenced by their history and their spiritual formation, they resisted the regime in power in France and took in Jewish refugees from Nazi oppression, sheltering them through that terrible time, at great personal risk.
Witness like this reminds all Christians everywhere that we will find God where people suffer, and that we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. We will not look back to the good old days that never were. We will not retreat from the world, and we will not give ourselves to violent schemes which divide and conquer. Instead, we will go with Christ to the neighbor, who is everyone.
And in the realm of our personal lives God’s transformative power is still present to our situations of failure, disappointment, pain, or when our lives are ebbing away.
Ramsay reminded me to think of my life as a priest, in which I’ve met so many people, who, having suffered, nevertheless display a power to love, a resilience, a gentleness and a capacity for hope. I hope you’ve met and are meeting those people, who are among us here today.
In the midst of what seems like a declining and frustrated civilization, in the midst of suffering, we Christians are to lift our situation as it is into the light that is shed by Christ into our lives. We are to behold Christ, to let our gaze linger there. And in so doing we’ll be changed. We’ll grow in likeness to who it is we behold.
Is this happening in us? I sometimes ask myself that question. Is it happening in me?
The truth is, it isn’t something we ourselves can see. It certainly doesn’t seem that way a lot of the time, I can tell you. And any evaluation I’d make of myself would certainly be wrong.
I believe we’re simply invited to trust that the Holy Spirit will help us to trust in God, to trust in the face of God we see in Christ, and to give ourselves in simple faith to this process. We’re simply to ask God to make it happen, and trust that God will make it happen.
Ruth Burrows gives words* to this way of trusting:
If I let God take hold of me more and more; possess me, as fire possesses the burning log, then I give off light and heat to the whole world even though the influence be completely hidden.
· *Quoted by Suzanne Guthrie at http://www.edgeofenclosure.org/epiphanylastc.html