Sermon for the Sunday Next before Lent
3rd Mar 2019
Sermon for the Sunday next before Lent Year C
“And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white”. Luke 9. 29
The Transfiguration of Christ on the mountain is not for the Gospel writer Luke a theatrical effect, but a reality which introduces notes of awe and of wonder and draws us into itself. For here we are ‘falling into the hands of the living God’. The Transfiguration is a meeting with the Jesus who has become Christ. It happens right before our eyes, and to see such things is to experience God’s glory. The glory is enveloped in brightness, and yet reveals a terrible secret - of the Christ who is the fulfiller all things, even unto death and resurrection. The secret is disclosed in dazzling white and also within thick shadow and dark cloud. Even though the Feast of the Transfiguration takes place in August, this Gospel reading is purposefully set before us as a key text for the coming of the penitential season of Lent. In this context, the mountain of Transfiguration is the place of amazing appearances, and yet 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 essential gravity of our 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. This is a strange and difficult kind of glory. It is the one which brings us into contact with the living God. Its message comes as a double-edged sword, the one which the Letter to the Hebrews describes as
…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 then, that this reading is set for the Sunday before Lent. There is no easy consolation offered here. Instead comes the invitation to find our truest humanity in Christ and to find it through ‘the changes and chances of this fleeting world and of its brokenness’. This is to begin to be honest with ourselves and toward God. To recognise life’s essential gravity. To begin to find in God that active love and the mercy we need if life is to be transformative.
In The Louvre, the French National Art Gallery in Paris, visitors invariably 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 the resonance of what is being photographed and its real presence. The photographer is very unstill. There is the attempt to put an atmosphere or an object in the pocket. 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 been revealed…
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
G M Hopkins
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 self-examination and of sacramental confession. To tell it like it is. Though it has been derided and caricatured and is less practiced 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. And it is more than matched by the matchless mercy of God. We trivialize this aspect of our lives at great cost to the integrity of the Christian Faith. The Transfiguration opens up for us new channels of grace and renewal of life.. 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’. The best introduction to Lent that we have.
A Prayer for the beginning of Lent:
Lord Jesus, Our Saviour, let us now come to you:
Our hearts are cold: Lord, warm them with your selfless love.
Our hearts are sinful; cleanse them with your precious blood.
Our hearts are weak; strengthen them with your joyous Spirit.
Our hearts are empty; fill them with your divine presence.
Lord Jesus, our hearts are yours; possess them always and only for yourself.