Sunday, 14 February 2021

How does God see us?
And how do we see God?

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

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 14 February 2021,

The Sunday before Lent, Transfiguration Sunday


10 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist

The Readings: II Kings 2: 1-12; Psalm 50: 1-6; Mark 9: 2-9.

The Transfiguration depicted in a stained-glass window in a church in Lucan, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

The two Sundays before Lent have special themes outside the cycle of readings in Ordinary Time. Last Sunday, the Second Sunday before Lent focusses on Creation, while the Sunday before Lent is Transfiguration Sunday.

The Transfiguration is described in the three Synoptic Gospels (see Matthew 17: 1-9; Mark 9: 2-8; Luke 9: 28-36), and all three accounts are very similar in wording.

Christ is the focus of the Transfiguration, but who are the other principle characters in this story?

This is an encounter with God as the Trinity; it is a reminder with the presence of Moses and Elijah that Christ is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets; it is a meeting of past, present and future; and it is a reminder of how frail is our humanity in the responses of the three Disciples present, Peter, James and John.

The Transfiguration is a reminder that God has created us in God’s image and likeness, that in Christ’s Incarnation, God took on our image and likeness, and that now we are called once again to take on the image and likeness of God.

In a lecture in Cambridge ten 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. It reminds us of our beginning, but also reminds us of the possibilities and the potentials of what it is to become like God once again.

But is the response of the disciples to the Transfiguration one that we should imitate or emulate?

As they hear the voice of God, they fall down in terror, they are overcome by fear, they are made speechless.

They are immobilised and when they think of acting, look at what they want to do: they want to put up three booths, or tents, or dwelling places, in which they can keep Jesus and Moses and Elijah. It is as if, frightened of the new, they want to fall back on the old certainties.

It is as if they want to contain God, to capture God, to keep God in a place where they can be assured of the old certainties, to turn God into a god that they can contain, capture and control. They want to put God in a box, to keep God in a box.

And, so often, instead of wanting to be in the image and likeness of God, people want God to be in our image and likeness, doing our bidding rather than listening to what God wants of us.

Seeking to capture God, to make God a captive and to control God, are strong religious instincts throughout history. In the 20th century, Hitler used the German Churches to control the people of Germany. In more recent years, the simple faith of many American people has been hijacked to support extreme politics in a land that once prided itself on the separation of state and religion.

This is what Professor Rachel S Mikva of Chicago Theological Seminary describes as ‘dangerous religious ideas’ (Dangerous Religious Ideas: The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Penguin, 2020).

In a recent ‘Opinion’ column for USA Today, she argues that ‘Religion is a dangerous business.’ In the wake of the Capitol insurrection in Washington last month, she tries to go beyond the revulsion all of us must feel when white Christian nationalism turns violent, and she draws attention to the ‘substantial number of Christians who plan to take the country for Jesus another way.’

The Christian right is ‘distorting the very meaning of religious freedom,’ she writes. There is the obvious danger we have all seen on news channels in the past month or two, with extremists who call themselves Christians ‘ready to bring on the apocalypse.’

But she warns of ‘a more resilient threat’ posed by people who claim the mantle of being Christians and who are ‘embedded throughout the governing institutions in the US – courts, military, legislatures, agencies and the police.’ In her words, they pose a real threat ‘to religious pluralism in the United States.’

She argues cogently for the need for ‘consciousness of the vital self-critical dimensions of faith,’ and says: ‘Whatever one’s spiritual life stance, we are choosing in every moment whether its power will be wielded for harm or for blessing.’

Power for harm; or power for blessing.

Do we want to keep God in a box as a power for harm; or do we really want to see God being God, and empowering us to be a power for blessing in the world?

I see this as the first great challenge posed by the Transfiguration.

And the second is like it: to see humanity as Christ in the Transfiguration would see us and would have us see each other.

Do I, so often, put people in a box in a way that denies they are made in the image and likeness of God? That they are called to become, once again, like God in Christ … what the Orthodox call ‘deification’ …?

Every time I dismiss someone because of their social background, where they were born, their gender, sexuality, ethnicity or parentage, I am making these differences more important than the way God sees them: made in God’s image and likeness, and holding, embodying the light of God in Christ.

Because those characteristics, those traits, are not self-chosen; they come at birth, we do not ask for them, you might say they are God-given. For indeed, God sees us in God’s own image and likeness, God sees in each one of us the potential to reflect the light of Christ in the Transfiguration.

Let’s not box God in: Let God be God, and let’s stop trying to control him by using him to our political and social advantage.

Let’s stop categorising people so we marginalise them instead of seeing them in God’s image and likeness.

For, when we love God and love others, we see the light of God in them and, hopefully, they see the light of God in us.

When she was the guest chaplain in the House of Representatives in 1995, Rabbi Rachel Mikva included these thoughts in her prayers:

However passionately we may cling to our vision of truth,
we must never fail to recognise your image, God,
reflected in the face of the other …

Ultimately, we stand before you,
naked of power or possessions,
seeking only to understand your will
and do it with a whole heart …

God, we pray that our words and our deeds
may be for Your sake,
bringing healing to our world
and wholeness to all those whose lives we touch.

Amen. אָמֵן׃

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

The Transfiguration in an icon in the parish church in the hill-side village of Piskopiano in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 9: 2-9 (NRSVA):

2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

The Transfiguration depicted in a fresco in the Analipsi Church (Resurrection) in Georgioupoli, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: White (Transfiguration Sunday)

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.

A Collect appropriate for Saint Valentine’s Day:

Lord, you have taught us
that all our doings without love are nothing worth:
Send your Holy Spirit
and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love,
the true bond of peace and of all virtues,
without which whoever lives is counted dead before you.
Grant this for your only Son Jesus Christ’s sake.
(Book of Common Prayer, p 141).

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:

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.

A Concluding Prayer on Saint Valentine’s Day:

Help us to share in Christ’s ministry
of love and service to one another;
through the same Jesus Christ our Lord,
who in the unity of the Holy Spirit
is one with you for ever. Amen.
(Book of Common Prayer, p 141).

Blessing:

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

The Transfiguration in a poster from the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge

Hymns:

325, Be still, for the presence of the Lord, the Holy One, is here (CD 20)
643, Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart

The Monastery of the Transfiguration or Great Meteoron in Meteora, northern Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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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