Sunday, 23 February 2020

Transfiguration can and does
occur ‘just around the corner,’
in the midst of … imperfection

The Transfiguration ... a stained-glass window in the Collegiate Church of Saint Nicholas, Galway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 23 February 2020, The Sunday before Lent

11.30 a.m.: Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick, The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2)

The Readings: Exodus 24: 12-18; Psalm 2 or 99; II Peter 1: 16-21; Matthew 17: 1-9.

The Transfiguration … a window in a parish church in Lucan, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This morning’s Gospel reading challenges us to hear God’s word, to see God as God would us to see God, and to see ourselves as God sees us.

Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain, by themselves. What were they expecting?

They have been with Christ for some time, but have they had an encounter yet with the Living God?

What did they think God was like?

Whatever they thought of God before this, it certainly was not an encounter or an experience they were expecting.

They have an encounter with the Living God, who within God’s own single existence is also community: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

God the Father is heard speaking, ‘This is my Son, the beloved.’

God the Holy Spirit is experienced as the cloud hovers the whole scene.

God the Son is revealed to be the living Christ in a way that they had never seen him before.

What do you think God looks like?

God is not some, monolithic, totem-like idol, who needs sacrifices and seeks vengeance, who makes crushing demands on people.

Instead, God is community.

This is also the God of Creation.

Think of how we heard last week as we looked at the Creation story, how the Spirit of God swept across the creation like the wind.

This is the God of promises and covenants.

Think of how the Ten Commandments are given to Moses on the top of Mount Sinai, how Elijah has an encounter with the God of promises in the cleft in the mountainside.

This is the God who fulfils all the promises of the covenant: here is Moses on one side.

This is the God who fulfils all the promises of the prophets: here is Elijah on the other side.

This is a God who calls us to action.

Peter, James and John fall to the ground, full of fear, immobilised.

But Christ calls them back to reality: ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’

The reality is, of course, that if Jesus is seen by Peter, James and John as they should really see them, then God sees them as they really are too.

How often do see ourselves as we really are?

When you look in the mirror, do you see yourself as you really are?

None of us knows – not even the most self-aware among us truly knows – how others see us.

I’m too fat … I’m too thin … I’m too short … I’m too lanky … they all think I’m too young, too immature, too old, beyond it.

And sometimes we just allow people to project onto us, and we start living according to how we think they think of me.

What do you see in the mirror?

Do you really see yourself?

Or do you see the image others project onto you?

Yet, one of the great psychological insights in last week’s Creation story is that we are, each one of us is, made in God’s image and likeness.

Not just a replica … or a photocopy … a true image and likeness.

When you look in the mirror in the morning, do you see God’s image and likeness.

What we think others think we are like causes so many problems: we eat too little or eat too much in response; we stop exercising or take too much exercise so that we have no time for the people who matter; we end up with eating disorders and anxiety problems and even depressed.

It’s not because we are self-obsessed. Quite often, it’s simply we just want to be like everyone else. We want to be accepted, we want to be loved, we want to be normal … whatever normal might mean.

We want others to see us as ‘normal.’

But when God looks at you, God is looking in the mirror. God is seeing God’s own image and likeness.

When these three disciples see the threefold God, they are frightened. When they hear God’s voice, are covered in the cloud and see the Transfigured Jesus, they are immobilised, frightened into being unable to move.

But if God the Father can say, ‘This is my Son, the beloved; with him I am well pleased,’ then, because of the Creation, because of Christ, can also look at you and me and say, ‘This is my Son, the beloved; with him I am well pleased … This is my daughter, the beloved; with her I am well pleased.’

At a lecture in Cambridge some years ago [2011], I heard Metropolitan Kallistos [Ware], the pre-eminent Orthodox theologian in England, speak 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 us as 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.

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), the Anglican ‘slum priest’ in the East End of London, 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 to 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 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.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Transfiguration … an icon in the parish church in Piskopiano in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 17: 1-9:

1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’

The Transfiguration … an icon by Adrienne Lord in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: White.

Penitential Kyries:

Your unfailing kindness, O Lord, is in the heavens,
and your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Your righteousness is like the strong mountains,
and your justice as the great deep.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

For with you is the well of life:
and in your light shall we see light.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty Father,
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.

Introduction to the Peace:

Christ will transfigure our human body
and give it a form like that of his own glorious body.
We are the Body of Christ. We share his peace.

(cf Philippians 3: 21, 1 Corinthians 11: 27, Romans 5: 1)

Preface:

Through Jesus Christ our Lord,
whose divine glory shone forth upon the holy mountain
before chosen witnesses of his majesty;
when your own voice from heaven
proclaimed him your beloved Son:

The Post Communion Prayer:

Holy God
we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ.
May we who are partakers at his table
reflect his life in word and deed,
that all the world may know
his power to change and save.
This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Blessing:

The God of all grace,
who called you to his eternal glory in Christ Jesus,
establish, strengthen and settle you in the faith:

Hymns:

52, Christ whose glory fills the skies (CD 4)
325, Be still, for the presence of the Lord (CD 20)
634, Love divine, all loves excelling (CD 36)

The Transfiguration … a fresco in the Church of the Four Martyrs in Rethymnon, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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