The Transfiguration ... a Romanian copy of an icon in Stavronikita Monastery in Mount Athos
Saint Columba's College, Rathfarnham, Dublin.
Sunday 7 February 2016,
The Sunday before Lent,
8 p.m.: Evening Prayer.
In the name of + the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Lent comes early this year. Lent begins next Wednesday with Ash Wednesday, and I am going away with the staff and students of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute for a full-day retreat to mark the beginning of Lent.
When I was growing up, Lent was once marked by people by giving up something: children giving up sweets, some adults giving up smoking or drinking alcohol.
Lent has not gone out of fashion, completely, in the Church of Ireland … well, not just yet … and the Book of Common Prayer still talks about Lent as a season of “Discipline and Self-Denial.”
Lent is so early this year because Easter comes quite early this year, at the end of next month [27 March 2016].
The pivotal day between the two seasons of Christmas and Easter is Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation, which was marked last Tuesday [2 February 2016].
Candlemas tells the story of two old people in the Temple, Simeon and Anna, who recognise who this small Christ Child Jesus is, not just for themselves, but for the nations of the world. It is a fitting culmination to the Epiphany stories that about reveal who Christ is: the stories of the visit of the Magi, the baptism of Christ and the Wedding at Cana.
These are stories of light and they are enlightening stories.
Now before we move to Lent we have two stories of light, and a revelation of who Christ is and who he is for the world. And they are stories that point to the Resurrection.
The first story in our Gospel reading this evening is the story of the Transfiguration.
The Transfiguration of Christ is the fulfilment of all of the Epiphany and Theophany stories. We could say the Transfiguration is the culmination of Christ’s public life, just as his Baptism is its starting point, and his Ascension is its end. As the late Archbishop Michael Ramsey has written, “The Transfiguration stands as a gateway to the saving events of the Gospel.”
Can we describe the Transfiguration as a miracle? If so, then it is the only Gospel miracle that happens to Christ himself. Saint Thomas Aquinas speaks of the Transfiguration as “the greatest miracle,” because it complements Baptism and showed the perfection of life in Heaven.
But let’s be practical about the Transfiguration. In a lecture in Cambridge some years ago , Metropolitan Kallistos [Ware], the pre-eminent Orthodox theologian in England, spoke of the Transfiguration as a disclosure not only of what God is but of what we are. The Transfiguration looks back to the beginning, but also looks forward to the end, opening new possibilities.
The Transfiguration shows us what we can be in and through Christ, he told that Summer School in Cambridge.
In secular life, there is a temptation to accept our human nature as it is now. But the Transfiguration of Christ offers the opportunity to look at ourselves not only as we are now, but what we can be in the future. The light of the Transfiguration embraces all created things, nothing is irredeemably secular, all created things can be bathed in the light of the Transfiguration.
The Transfiguration provides a guideline for confronting the secular world, Metropolitan Kallistos said. And he retold a story from Leo Tolstoy, Three Questions. The central figure is set a task of answering three questions:
What is the most important moment? The most important moment is now, the past is gone, and the future does not exist yet.
Who is the most important person? This person who is before you in this very instant.
What is the most important task? This task which you are engaged in here and now.
What we see in Christ at the Transfiguration is human nature, our human nature, taken up into God and filled with the light of God. “Or, as the Revd Dr Kenneth Leech once said: “Transfiguration can and does occur ‘just around the corner,’ occurs in the midst of perplexity, imperfection, and disastrous misunderstanding.”
The second story, as you heard the Gospel being read this evening, may not seem to be related to the first story.
But it is oh so intimately connected with it.
The Transfiguration is not just an Epiphany or Theophany moment for Christ, with Peter, James and John as onlookers. The Transfiguration is a story of, a miracle that reminds us of how God sees us in God’s own image and likeness, sees us for who we are and who we are going to be, no matter how others see us, no matter how others dismiss us.
And immediately, then, Christ sees the potential of the child, the only son, that a distressed father is troubled and paralysed child. Christ sees the boy’s potential as the image and likeness of God and restores him to being seen as such.
When you are an adult, will you love the child you have been in your childhood?
When we become adults, many of us are messed up and mess up in life, not because of what is happening in the present, but because of what has happened to us as children in the past.
Are you going to blame your problems in the future on what happened to you in the past?
There is an old saying that the child is the father to the man. You are about to become responsible adults in the world.
In the future, take ownership of who you have been as a child. Remember always that you are made in the image and likeness of God. And, no matter what others say about you, how others judge you, how others gossip or talk about, God sees your potential, God sees in you God’s own image and likeness, God knows you are beautiful inside and loves you, loves you for ever, as though you are God’s only child.
(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford lectures in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This sermon was preached at Evensong in Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, Dublin, on Sunday 7 February 2016.
The cloisters in Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
whose Son was revealed in majesty
before he suffered death upon the cross:
Give us grace to perceive his glory,
that we may be strengthened to suffer with him
and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Luke 9: 28-43
28 Ἐγένετο δὲ μετὰ τοὺς λόγους τούτους ὡσεὶ ἡμέραι ὀκτὼ [καὶ] παραλαβὼν Πέτρον καὶ Ἰωάννην καὶ Ἰάκωβον ἀνέβη εἰς τὸ ὄρος προσεύξασθαι. 29 καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν τῷ προσεύχεσθαι αὐτὸν τὸ εἶδος τοῦ προσώπουαὐτοῦ ἕτερον καὶ ὁ ἱματισμὸς αὐτοῦ λευκὸς ἐξαστράπτων. 30 καὶ ἰδοὺ ἄνδρες δύο συνελάλουν αὐτῷ, οἵτινες ἦσαν Μωϋσῆς καὶ Ἠλίας, 31 οἳ ὀφθέντες ἐν δόξῃ ἔλεγον τὴν ἔξοδον αὐτοῦ, ἣν ἤμελλεν πληροῦν ἐν Ἰερουσαλήμ. 32 ὁ δὲ Πέτρος καὶ οἱ σὺν αὐτῷ ἦσαν βεβαρημένοι ὕπνῳ: διαγρηγορήσαντες δὲ εἶδον τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ καὶ τοὺς δύο ἄνδρας τοὺς συνεστῶτας αὐτῷ. 33 καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν τῷ διαχωρίζεσθαι αὐτοὺς ἀπ' αὐτοῦ εἶπεν ὁ Πέτρος πρὸς τὸν Ἰησοῦν, Ἐπιστάτα, καλόν ἐστιν ἡμᾶς ὧδε εἶναι, καὶ ποιήσωμεν σκηνὰς τρεῖς, μίαν σοὶ καὶ μίαν Μωϋσεῖ καὶ μίαν Ἠλίᾳ, μὴ εἰδὼς ὃ λέγει. 34 ταῦτα δὲ αὐτοῦ λέγοντος ἐγένετο νεφέληκαὶ ἐπεσκίαζεν αὐτούς: ἐφοβήθησαν δὲ ἐν τῷ εἰσελθεῖν αὐτοὺς εἰς τὴν νεφέλην. 35 καὶ φωνὴ ἐγένετο ἐκ τῆς νεφέλης λέγουσα, Οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἐκλελεγμένος, αὐτοῦ ἀκούετε. 36 καὶ ἐν τῷ γενέσθαι τὴν φωνὴν εὑρέθη Ἰησοῦς μόνος. καὶ αὐτοὶ ἐσίγησαν καὶ οὐδενὶ ἀπήγγειλαν ἐν ἐκείναις ταῖς ἡμέραις οὐδὲν ὧν ἑώρακαν.
37 Ἐγένετο δὲ τῇ ἑξῆς ἡμέρᾳ κατελθόντων αὐτῶν ἀπὸ τοῦ ὄρους συνήντησεν αὐτῷ ὄχλος πολύς. 38 καὶ ἰδοὺ ἀνὴρ ἀπὸ τοῦ ὄχλου ἐβόησεν λέγων, Διδάσκαλε, δέομαί σου ἐπιβλέψαι ἐπὶ τὸν υἱόν μου, ὅτι μονογενής μοί ἐστιν, 39 καὶ ἰδοὺ πνεῦμα λαμβάνει αὐτόν, καὶ ἐξαίφνης κράζει, καὶ σπαράσσει αὐτὸν μετὰ ἀφροῦ καὶ μόγις ἀποχωρεῖ ἀπ' αὐτοῦ συντρῖβον αὐτόν: 40 καὶ ἐδεήθην τῶν μαθητῶν σου ἵνα ἐκβάλωσιν αὐτό, καὶ οὐκ ἠδυνήθησαν. 41 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν, ω γενεὰ ἄπιστος καὶ διεστραμμένη, ἕως πότε ἔσομαι πρὸς ὑμᾶς καὶ ἀνέξομαι ὑμῶν; προσάγαγε ὧδε τὸν υἱόν σου. 42 ἔτι δὲ προσερχομένου αὐτοῦ ἔρρηξεν αὐτὸν τὸ δαιμόνιον καὶ συνεσπάραξεν: ἐπετίμησεν δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς τῷ πνεύματι τῷ ἀκαθάρτῳ, καὶ ἰάσατο τὸν παῖδα καὶ ἀπέδωκεν αὐτὸν τῷ πατρὶ αὐτοῦ. 43 ἐξεπλήσσοντο δὲ πάντες ἐπὶ τῇ μεγαλειότητι τοῦ θεοῦ.
28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’ – not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38 Just then a man from the crowd shouted, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39 Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40 I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.’ 41 Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.’ 42 While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43 And all were astounded at the greatness of God.