06 August 2017
The Transfiguration reminds
us of how God sees us in
God’s image and likeness
Sunday 6 August 2017,
The Transfiguration of Our Lord.
11.30 a.m.: Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry, Morning Prayer.
Readings: Daniel 7: 9-10, 13-14; Psalm 97; II Peter 1: 16-19; Luke 9: 28-36.
In the name of + the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
I wonder if the changes in the weather in the past week mean summer has come to an end, even though we have only reached the August bank holiday. Yet travel writers are talking about chaos on this the busiest weekend for European airports handling tourists and package holidays.
In some airports, intensified passport controls mean that there have been three and four-hour queues and delays in some airports for families setting off on their holidays, and for families returning from their holidays.
If the sun is shining in the rest of Europe, then these queues and these delays must have taken the shine off many a holiday.
At airports this summer, I have noticed how we find ourselves stuck in three moments in time: coming from somewhere in the past, either from a holiday or getting away from work; on our way to the future, that holiday or back to work; and in that moment in chaos where we find ourselves in a present filled with angst –am I going to get away, am I going to be stuck here on the ground, am I going to get back?
Whether you see July or August as the appropriate or traditional month for summer holidays, this weekend acts as the bridge weekend. Maybe later today or tomorrow I may see for myself how crowded are the beaches at Ballybunion or Kilkee – and how crowded the roads are – as people try to enjoy the main holiday weekend of this summer.
The Feast of the Transfiguration [6 August] comes not just in the middle of the holiday season, but in the middle of what the Church Calendar knows as Ordinary Time. In Ordinary Time, that long time after Pentecost, we are learning to keep our feet on the ground, to know what it is to be the Church in the world, to be putting the joys of our faith into practice.
The Transfiguration of Christ is the fulfilment of all the Epiphany and Theophany stories. We could say the Transfiguration is the high point in 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.’
In today’s worldly ways, in our culture today, we may find it difficult to come to terms culturally with apocalyptic visions, and think they are only for people who have their heads in the clouds. But this morning’s Old Testament reading (Daniel 7: 9-10, 13-14) and our Gospel story (Luke 9: 28-36) offer two visions that pull us in different directions.
The Prophet Daniel is caught up in an experience that is very much in the present, but that looks back to the past, and yet is full of promise for the future.
In his present predicament, Daniel has a vision of the Ancient One, the Ancient of Days (Ο Παλαιός των Ημερών). Most of the Eastern Church Fathers who comment on this passage interpret this figure as a revelation of the Son before his Incarnation.
Eastern Christian art sometimes portrays Christ as an old man, the Ancient of Days, to show symbolically that he existed from all eternity, that Christ is pre-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
In experiencing the Divine presence in the present, Daniel looks back to the past with the title the Ancient One or the Ancient of Days (verse 9). But he also looks forward to the future, when Christ is given dominion that is everlasting, that shall not pass away, that shall never be destroyed (verse 14).
In a similar way, the Transfiguration is a moment that brings the experience of the past and the promise of the future together in the moment of the present.
I saw this recently in two icons of the Transfiguration in two different places.
I was visiting a new church built in a village in the mountains above the tourist resorts in Crete. There I was shown an icon of the Transfiguration presented to that Church in 2007, shortly after it opened ten years ago.
A few weeks earlier, I was invited to open the summer exhibition in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, of icons by Adrienne Lord. The poster for this exhibition, and one of the principal exhibits, is an icon of the Transfiguration.
In both icons, we see on the left, Christ leading the three disciples, Peter, James and John, up the mountain; in the centre, we see these three disciples stumbling and falling as they witness and experience the Transfiguration; and then, to the right, Christ is depicted leading these three back down the side of the mountain.
In other words, we are invited to see the Transfiguration not as a static moment but as a dynamic event. It is a living event in which we are invited to move from all in the past that weighs us down, to experience the full life that Christ offers us today, and to bring this into how we live our lives as Disciples in the future, a future that begins here and now.
The Transfiguration is both an event and a process. The original Greek word for Transfiguration in the Gospels is μεταμόρφωσις (metamorphosis), which means ‘to progress from one state of being to another.’ Consider the metamorphosis of the chrysalis into the butterfly. Saint Paul uses the same word (μεταμόρφωσις) when he describes how the Christian is to be transfigured, transformed, into the image of Christ (II Corinthians 3: 18).
This metamorphosis invites us into the event of becoming what we have been created to be. This is what Orthodox writers call deification. Transfiguration is a profound change, by God, in Christ, through the Spirit. And so, the Transfiguration reveals to us our ultimate destiny as Christians, the ultimate destiny of all people and all creation – to be transformed and glorified by the majestic splendour of God himself.
The Transfiguration points to Christ’s great and glorious Second Coming and the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God, when all of creation shall be transfigured and filled with light.
According to Saint Gregory Palamas, the light of the Transfiguration ‘is not something that comes to be and then vanishes.’ It not only prefigures the eternal blessedness that all Christians look forward to, but also the Kingdom of God already revealed, realised and come.
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, to the final glory of Christ’s second coming, because through the incarnation Christ raises our human nature to a new level, opens new possibilities.
The Incarnation is a new beginning for the human race, and in the Transfiguration we see not only our human nature at the beginning, but as it can be in and through Christ at the end, he told us.
But with the Transfiguration comes the invitation to bear the cross with Christ. Peter, James and John are with Christ on Mount Tabor, and they are with him in Gethsemane. We must understand the Passion of Christ and the Transfiguration in the light of each other, not as two separate mysteries, but aspects of the one single mystery. Mount Tabor and Mount Calvary go together; and glory and suffering go together.
If we are to become part of the Transfiguration, we cannot leave our cross behind. If we are to bring the secular, fallen world into the glory of Christ, that has to be through self-emptying (κένωσις, kenosis), cross-bearing and suffering. There is no answer to secularism that does not take account of the Cross, as well as taking account of the Transfiguration and the Resurrection.
The Transfiguration provides a guideline for confronting the secular world, he said. And Metropolitan Kalistos reminded us of the story from Leo Tolstoy, Three Questions. The central figure is set a task of answering three questions:
What is the most important time?
The most important time is now, the past is gone, and the future does not exist yet.
Who is the most important person?
The person who is with you at this very instant.
What is the most important task?
‘This task is, to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!’
The light that shone from Christ on the mountaintop is not a physical and created light, but an eternal and uncreated light, a divine light, the light of the Godhead, the light of the Holy Trinity.
The experience on Mount Tabor confirms Saint Peter’s confession of faith which reveals Christ as the Son of the Living God. Yet Christ remains fully human as ever he was, as fully human as you or me, and his humanity is not abolished. But the Godhead shines through his body and from it.
In Christ dwells all the fullness of the Godhead. But at other points in his life, the glory is hidden beneath the veil of his flesh. What we see in Christ on Mount Tabor is human nature, our human nature, taken up into God and filled with the light of God. ‘So, this should be our attitude to the secular world,’ Metropolitan Kallistos said.
Or, as the Revd Dr Kenneth Leech (1939-2015) once said: ‘Transfiguration can and does occur ‘just around the corner,’ occurs in the midst of perplexity, imperfection, and disastrous misunderstanding.’
Metropolitan Kallistos spoke that day 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 us.
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 take stock of what happened in the past that made us so, and to grasp the promise of what we can be in the future.
The Transfiguration is not just an Epiphany or a Theophany moment for Christ, with Peter, James and John as onlookers. The Transfiguration reminds us of how God sees us in God’s own image and likeness, sees us for who we were, who we are and who we are going to be, no matter how others see us, no matter how others dismiss us.
The Transfiguration is a challenge to remember always that we 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 you, how others treat you, 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. You are his beloved child in whom he is well pleased.
(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for Sunday 6 August 2017.
Father in heaven,
whose Son Jesus Christ was wonderfully transfigured
before chosen witnesses upon the holy mountain,
and spoke of the exodus he would accomplish at Jerusalem:
Give us strength so to hear his voice and bear our cross in this world,
that in the world to come we may see him as he is;
where he is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Luke 9: 28-36
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 προσώπου αὐτοῦ 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 νεφέλη καὶ 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.
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.