Sermon for the Sunday Next Before Lent (Transfiguration Sunday)
11th Feb 2018
Sermon for the Sunday next before Lent Year B
“And he was transfigured before them” Mark 9.10.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
G M Hopkins
The Transfiguration of Christ on the mountain is not for the Gospel writer Mark, a theatrical effect, but one which introduces notes of awe and of wonder and draws us into itself. For Mark and Hopkins we are ‘falling into the hands of the living God’. It is a meeting with the Jesus who has become Christ. It happens right before our eyes. To see such things with the inner eye is to experience glory. The glory is enveloped in brightness, and yet reveals a terrible secret - of the Christ, the One who has fulfilled all things, even unto death and resurrection. The secret is disclosed in dazzling white and yet within thick shadow and dark cloud. Even though the Feast of the Transfiguration takes place in August, this Gospel reading is deliberately set before us as a key text for the Sunday before Lent. The mountain of Transfiguration the place of amazing appearances, and also of stark realities; of terrible truth. It points to the Cross even as it manifests the glory of God. As we sing the well-known hymn ‘Tis Good Lord to be Here’, there is already a strong sense of foreboding:
Fulfiller of the past,
Promise of things to be,
We hail Thy body glorified
And our redemption see.
This terrible truth-telling in the Transfiguration shows us that there is always the danger of not seeing the other side of things; of the existence and the seriousness of human suffering, of life as a struggle and of the need for forgiveness and the experience of much pain and adversity. This is the Cross of Jesus and it is our Cross, too. Jesus takes this Cross upon himself and it is the Cross of Jesus which is the glory that God reveals in the mountain-top. But this is a strange and difficult kind of glory. It is the one which brings us into contact with the living God. But this is the God who is vital, and whose influence upon us is as the double edged sword,
…piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart…” Hebrews 4.12
No wonder that this reading is set for the Sunday before Lent. It was not easy consolation that is provided here. Instead, there is the invitation to find our truest humanity in Christ and to find it through ‘the changes and chances of this fleeting world’. This is to begin to be honest with ourselves and toward God. To recognise life’s essential contingency. To begin to find in God that active love and the mercy we need to move us on. For we cannot stay on the mountain. It is a place of revelation and a vital and necessary point of departure.
I once went to the Louvre, the French National Art Gallery in Paris. At some point all visitors head towards one great painting, The Mona Lisa. She gazes impassively through bullet proof glass and is constantly surrounded by her own paparazzi – with cameras and continuous flashes of blinding white light. She has become like the namesake Madonna, a superstar. It is difficult to get near her. But with all the adulation, one wonders what is going on? What is it that is happening when thousands of tourists take photos constantly? There seems to be a manic rush to record it all, and while the photographer is snapping away to ignore its real presence. There is the attempt to capture it. To possess it. To take it away. The Transfiguration offers us the opposite of the blinding camera flash and the image you can put into your pocket. The appearance of Jesus in white light on the mountain-top is God’s revelation to his people, you and me, of his merciful love. In all we have to do or to suffer, God’s presence lies before us as and with it the promise of his holiness to surround us and to inhabit our inmost being. His face shines to show us the light of the revelation of the fullness of God…What is real is not looked at from exterior vision but from within the truth of what has appeared…
But how are we to bear true witness, especially as we approach the beginning of Lent? The Church offers us as individuals a way forward in the practice of Sacramental Confession. To tell it like it is. Though it has been derided and caricatured and is less practised by many, its effectiveness is very real. The costliness of our being more honest about what we are and what we do wrong is often too humiliating to bear. But this is a necessary humbling, a Cross, which provides us with an effective remedy. It provides a pathway to the restoration of the soul, often so damaged and maimed by our own essential pride. It is an attempt at an honesty from which new life may emerge. We trivialise this aspect of our lives at great cost to the integrity of the Christian Faith. The Transfiguration opens up on honesty to reality. It is what St Paul called
The light of the fullness of the revelation of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ”. 2 Corinthians 4.6.
It is a revelation of what lies most true for human nature. It provides the marriage between what the Old Prayer Book in its General Thanksgiving called ‘The means of Grace and the hope of glory’.