Good Friday 2012
6th Apr 2012
I well remember as a boy that the Mass contained one expression in the Creed which then and even now never ceases to shock me. It is an expression which unnerves the believer and sticks in the gullet, for it is the one which says that Jesus ‘descended into hell’. However this expression is qualified by the Resurrection, the fact of the descent into hell is given to us as the mark and purpose of Good Friday. And it relates most closely to that has been called the awful particularity of the Cross. God has sent his beloved Son into the world to die for the world as the world is, and as we are. To enter completely into the human condition is for Christ to take it all upon himself. To take it into himself, into his heart and to offer it back as love from the place of his own death, a death which is ‘freely accepted’. This is an action which involves a ‘descent into hell’ and the scope of this action is all-encompassing and all embracing.
The dying body of Christ on the Cross is being shown to the world today as both a spiritual lightening conductor and as ‘the eye of the storm’. The body of Christ on the Cross is to be the instrument which for Orthodox Christians brings about ‘the harrowing of hell’. The Cross is a force field into which all human sin and all human hope and longing is drawn into the body of Christ, like a lightening conductor. This body draws everything into itself as darkness covers the face of the whole earth, as lightning strikes, and as the veil of the Temple is torn in two. The body of Christ can draw all the world’s pain into itself because within the sacred heart of the dying Jesus lies God himself, the Creator of all things and perfect love, which exists in the middle of the violence of the crucifixion as the eye of the storm, the place of perfect, God-centred stillness out of which his love flows. This is the harrowing of hell.
And so we are led to see that the death of Christ has a vast scope of cosmic significance. It could never be cosmetic. “God so loved the world that he gave us his only begotten Son so that anyone who believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life”. The sacrifice of God, if it is to be cosmic rather than cosmetic, must take all things into itself to issue in a complete outpouring of everlasting love. And so there is something mighty that is happening here. There is something which is being fought for us and won for us by Christ on our behalf. There is something worth living and dying for here…
When at school I could never really grasp the laws of science. One of my reports for physics reads ‘Christopher just doesn’t have a scientific mind’. It’s just that I couldn’t connect up scientific laws and principles with the realities of my existence, which were no larger or more narrow than most boys, but which were bound up with the Church and the glimmerings of a Christian Faith and a wandering, romantic imagination. But I did learn a basic bit of science which informs and enriches the realities around which people relate to one another. And it is contained in Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion “To each and every force (or gesture or action) there is an equal and opposite reaction”. If we translate this scientific law into our understanding of the Sacrificial death of Christ on the Cross we are to say that above and before all else it is an action which proceeds out of God’s love for us. And as perfect love is offered to a fallen, ambivolent world the reaction it creates is at best a variable one, or as Newton might have said ,‘something like equal and very often opposite’. The Grand Inquisitor: “You loved us too much and you gave us too much freedom” Dostoevsky.
The risk for the issuing of love toward a person or persons hurt and defended from being loved is that it will result not in acceptance but in defensive anger, resentment and an acting out of that anger in ways which turn out to be spiteful or mean or merely obtuse. Or the response may just be a numb one. Those parts of our nature which have not been loved cry out, perhaps silently, for a healing of the past, a healing of minds and hearts and memories.
Always the same hills
Crowd the horizon
Of the still scene.
And in the foreground
The tall Cross
Aches for the Body
That is back in the cradle
Of a maid’s arms.
RS Thomas The Pièta.
We come before God wounded, vulnerable and broken. That is our Cross. And it is Christ, who lies before us in this church dedicated to the Holy Cross who tells us this. And the teaching we receive from the Cross is the teaching that issues out of Christ’s own manner of living and dying, as the Letter to the Hebrews informs us: “…during his life on earth, Jesus offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears, to the one who had the power to save him out of death, and he submitted so humbly that his prayer was heard”.
The Spanish Mystic, St John of the Cross tells us that “…we too must have our Cross as our beloved had his Cross until he died the death of love”. We all have our crosses to bear and they are not little ones. We are cross bearers too. Many people come to this church in King’s Cross defeated by addiction to alcohol. One of these visitors said to me that she had come into this church because prompted. For out of all her suffering came a prayer, which appeared out of apparently nowhere. It was one which told her that something that to give, something had to be done. But this prospect was awful because with it the terrible realisation of all that had gone before and what had brought her to this place. But she came into church as many at rock bottom do – to come to a place of seeming truth. And her coming into this church and the sense of communion with God had both addressed and exacerbated the pain. This is the scope of the Cross. ‘It is after all a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Terrible, because all is caught up in God, even and especially when no easy resolution lies in sight…life as unfinished business, the painful waiting for a deliverance which lies beyond immediate reach, the pain of remaining where we are in the midst of so much that is intractable and insoluble with the possibility of the healing of past hurts and their memories… This is a veritable Cross.
But it is not the end of the matter. The Cross holds out the possibility of what lies beyond it. In the Cross lies the world’s turmoil held within the place of unconditional and inexhaustible love. This is the eye of the storm, the place of healing power and the Divine stillness, the arrival at the place of truer witness. This is the lightening conductor through which the pain of this world’s ransoming is held and channelled. All is being drawn into the Cross as he said “When I am lifted up I shall draw all things to myself”. We are to bear the Cross as the Cross bears us, for in it the promised Resurrection to new life is already being made.
Maundy Thursday 2012
5th Apr 2012
Unless I wash you, you have no share in me
On this Maundy Thursday night we experience Jesus’ministry in the raw. Nothing can disguise the fact that what at first looks like an ordinary domestic scene; the scene of the Last Supper, is fraught with tension. The very name ‘Last Supper’ sounds ominous, and it is. It foretells an ending; a death; Jesus’ death, but not yet. It foretells the betrayal by Judas. It takes place in a room that has, Luke mysteriously tells us, already been prepared. The supper itself is preceded by footwashing and then the words of Jesus over the bread and wine ‘This is my body’; ‘This is my blood’. Jesus’ words and gestures all point to a future for which the disciples are unprepared, for they, despite Peter’s pleas, are to desert Jesus in his greatest hour of need. Jesus’ words are also foreboding, because they speak from the point view of a world which will never be the same again. Everything in this Gospel reading is both as it should be and yet it is ominous, and then there is in the Maundy Thursday liturgy the sense of disorientation and then reorientation as tonight’s solemn celebration (yes, celebration) of the Holy Eucharist is followed by the stripping of the Church which speaks to us of a loss and a dereliction. The reorientation that we undergo is the one that takes us from the strange and temporary safety of the upper room to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus sweats blood and suffers the agony of his destiny and the falling away of the disciples. The sharing of the supper, with its foot-washing and eating, is soon overshadowed as Jesus prepares to accept his own death in the agony of the Garden of Getshemane. And what intensifies this is in the Gospel is the confident assertion that all these apparently disconnected and ominous signs all happen to fulfil the Father’s will. John tells us that Jesus knows that the Father “had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going (back) to God’ (John 13.3a). And we are to witness these things as we are invited to watch and wait ‘til midnight, when we enter upon Good Friday.
How can it be possible for us to reconcile the terribleness and randomness of human fate, and our fate in particular, with God the Father, who knows it all before it comes to be? How can it be possible that the love of God in Jesus Christ reveals itself as simply and as intimately as in the washing of feet? Can we bear to allow God to get that close to us? Can we bear to accept that God loves us at such close range and so intimately? The washing of the feet is done as Jesus comes to heal the neglected, the embarassed, the shameful, the barricaded and the lost parts of our nature. As our servant Jesus humbles himself and is ready to don the apron, to carry the bowl and jug and to serve us as we are to serve one another. He pours the cleansing and tactile waters of his healing over those parts of our human nature that have become ingrown and hardened and fatalistic. All things, on this Maundy Thursday evening, orientate us towards both the cost and the purpose of Christ’s sacrificial love. But equally, they invite us to accept the awkward fact that Jesus wishes to serve us and our needs before ever we rush to serve him. At the heart of human confusion, the love of God remains, immoveable, unshakeable, purposeful and everlasting. This is what makes sense of the chaos of Maundy Thursday.
But for now, for tonight, all this must be put on hold. It will be enough to echo the words of doubting Thomas,
Let us also go (with him), that we may die with him.
PARISH PRIEST’S REVIEW OF THE YEAR 2011-2012
11th Mar 2012
PARISH PRIEST’S REVIEW OF THE YEAR 2011-2012
THE THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
In this morning’s gospel reading we witness the cleansing of the temple, in which Jesus drives out the money lenders and traders. Jesus calls the Temple ‘The Father’s House’. He makes a connection between the existence of the Temple as betokening both the presence of God and also Christ’s own bodily resurrection. “Destroy this temple…” says Jesus, “…and in three days I will raise it up” He is speaking of his resurrection as transformational. This is his promise to us – of the life of God in us. The figure of the body as God’s habitat was later made by St Paul:
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?
You are not your own.
1 Corinthians 6.19
In speaking of the raising up of the Temple and his own resurrection John’s Gospel boldly declares Jesus to be the new centre of being. He brings a new holiness, which is incarnated; made human. When we share the sign of Peace in this Eucharist we declare ourselves to be the Body of Christ. When we do this we are not just expressing the fact of our being together as a body of people. Instead, we are sharing that same understanding which was Christ’s – of the intimate connection that exists between the Church as the place of holiness and between the life of the body and the life of the soul. Each, in the love of God, is to inhabit the other…
As I make this sixth annual review of our life here at Holy Cross this message is good to have in mind. This Church, no less than the temple in Jerusalem is recognised as the place of God’s indwelling, and it falls to us as members of the Body of Christ in this place, to render loving worship and service to our church and to maintain it as the place where God is seen and known felt to be present, or as one of our churchwardens has called it, as ‘an Anglo-Catholic candle in this corner of King’s Cross’. If this church, like the Temple, is one which is ‘raised up’ in Christ, living the resurrection, then that candle is to be the Easter candle which tells of a growing and a transformed church, and of a life which doesn’t stand still but which renews itself and embraces its own calling and destiny, just as Christ did.
Here at Holy Cross Church May 30th saw our annual pilgrimage to Walsingham and to a picnic just managing to avoid the rain. We have held the usual pot luck lunches at the vicarage, and this has been a very effective way of sharing food and welcoming our many visitors and newcomers. On one Sunday alone we had visitors from Philadelphia, the Western Sahara and Papua New Guinea, as well as those from nearby. And then we have welcomed those who wish to establish themselves here. We have twelve new permanent members this year, of which one, Tom, is currently under instruction for Confirmation at St Paul’s Cathedral. Of others, one is a young police detective, one a business and community advisor, one a professional singer and one a speech therapist. All have found God in this place and among our people at Holy Cross. All are now welcomed into this church with more to come, I am sure. Last May also saw a trip to the Tower of London for the St Nicholas Society’s celebrations with a Mass celebration by Canon Dr Jim Rosenthal, formerly communications officer to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who also preached for us at last year’s Corpus Christi celebrations. In that same month, Fr Christopher presided at a Mass setting to Faure’s Requiem at New St Pancras Church at which the dead of the July 7th bombings in 2005 were remembered. During the year the Friday morning open group has continued to meet with many attending the 12 45 pm Mass. The group has been provided with new chairs and kettles, and our two Roman Catholic Sisters from the nearby Consolata Missionary Community, Cesariana and Evangelia have joined us in a pastoring role. They have kindly donated a set of green vestments for our use and we thank them for their generosity. Our friendship with the community grows and deepens and in mid-August I visited them at their house in Rome and witnessed a breathtaking lakeside firework ceremony in nearby Trevignano Romano for the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
Our local links lie with the Neighbourhood Association, with the nearby ecumenical churches and with Argyle School. In all three cases we have been able to deepen established partnerships for the good of the church and the local community. The ecumenical churches have held regular acts of worship and Bible study groups at Lumen, a beautiful modernist church in regent Square, and we have explored themes relating to living with diversity, with God and money, and with current Lent group meetings looking at the life and witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his teaching on ‘costly discipleship’. There have been joint worship for The Week of Prayer for Christian unity and One World Week as well as the annual Good Friday Walk of Witness around the churches of King’s Cross, including St Pancras Station. Argyle schoolchildren visited the St Ethelburgha Centre for Peace and Reconciliation in the City last July, and on January 18th of this year the Archbishop visited Argyle School and this was an occasion for the sharing of poetry and of practising meditation with the final year classes. At this time we are beginning a whole process of planning for the Olympic Games with local groups and particularly with the Neighbourhood Association’s youth team with a celebration event on the day of the Opening of The Olympics on Friday 27th July. Meanwhile we hope to remain open here at Holy Cross during the daytime for the whole duration of the Games and we need to explore how we are going to commit our time and energies to be here at the church and welcome our visitors.
This past year saw a larger than average group of seven candidates – two for Baptism and Five for Confirmation. A great Mass in the presence of The Bishop of Edmonton marked our Patronal Feast of Holy Cross on Sunday 18th September. Candidates had prepared with visits to Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral and Edgware Abbey. Two of our candidates have moved away for the time being, Nicholas and Michael, but not for good! Katharine, Justin, Michael, and Sophie are added to our communicant membership. Genevieve to Baptism.
This year has seen the Archdeacon’s quinquennial inspection of the parish and he has particularly noted the growth in numbers and the commitment to mission, and of the real sense in which Holy cross Church and its new life is considered in the Diocese of London to give the Church in King’s Cross great new heart. We at Holy cross Church have links world-wide, with the parents of a former parishioner, Rebe Taylor, visiting from Tasmania in July and Steve Burrows’ significant and continuing commitment to Calcutta Rescue, a teaching and medical aid organisation, and bringing back messages and hand-made gifts for sale. We continue our link with the garrison church of St George in Accra, Ghana and we remember Naomi Johnson who has just returned there before coming back to us in September. As I speak we are raising money for the Diocesan Lenten Appeal for Mozambique and Angola, for which envelopes are available at the back.
Our welcome of children has resulted, after months of preparation in the establishment of a permanent Sunday School, and thanks go to Malika, Joyce, Irene, Charles Cannabanya, Rachel Joseph and others for its planning and maintenance. A Parish Picnic took us to Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath in July of last year for an opportunity to play fierce games of football with Michael Samai and the Cannabanya girls.
At Deanery level, there has been exploration through three meetings of how churches can grow, both spiritually and in leadership and mission, as well as looking at our church buildings and how to make the best of the practical opportunities they provide. A key finding was the link between growing churches and those churches with a developed children’s ministry and a good musical tradition. Holy Cross is fortunate to have these two elements very much in place. This year, with electoral numbers above 75 members, we now hope soon to send two rather than one representative to Deanery Synod. At Diocesan level, a conference at St Mary’s Church, Eversholt Street in the presence of The Bishop of London commemorated the 25th Anniversary of the ‘Faith in the City’ Report and the establishment of The Church Urban Fund. An Edmonton area study day saw an address on The Church’s role in education by the Rev’d. Canon David Whitttington, who is to be the third of our Lenten guest preachers next Sunday. On Remembrance Sunday we welcomed uniformed cadets from the local Territorial Army Base in Handel Street, and their presence always adds dignity and meaning in the commemoration of the dead from the world wars and also of course in more recent times. Their youth is an abiding testimony to the timelessness of remembrance with the passing of time.
The New Year saw the adoption by this church of the Common Worship provision for the Mass and other rites, following the instruction given by the Bishop of London. This has now been introduced with many parts of our old Mass rite maintained with the move to a distinctly Anglican provision. The transition has been relatively straightforward. The Annual Parish Beating of the Bounds took place before the Patronal Festival in September, and on the 11th of that month, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy in New York, a Service of Commemoration was held at Westminster Abbey whose preacher was the Syrian Anglican priest and friend of this parish, Father Nadim Nassar. A tour around the new King’s Cross development was organised by Pamela Mansi last Autumn and this gave a group of us a fascinating glimpse into the scope and scale of plans for the redevelopment of the site behind St Pancras Station. Our annual Carol Service on 19th December saw a large gathering of our older citizens from Age Concern and the Neighbourhood Association. Midnight Mass and Christmas morning Mass saw larger than usual congregations as we have developed more carol singing around the crib. In January a group of volunteers have been cooking breakfasts at the Camden Cold Weather Nightshelter, and January saw our annual New Year Concert from the London Motet and Madrigal Group.
2012 promises to bring with it the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Celebrations, and we hope to have a royal thanksgiving service here in the Summer to coincide with the national thanksgiving. Our organist, John Webster is planning for an organ recital on the afternoon of the Feast of Pentecost on Sunday 27th May at 3 pm to be followed by cream teas! It is hoped that we at Holy Cross Church can garner support as stewards for the school event on 27th July for the opening of the Olympic Games. We also need to develop the church’s interior space for welcome, perhaps setting up a small exhibition depicting the church’s history. In the coming year it is our hope that we will be able to bring strong focus to bear on church finances, and through visitations and assistance and consultation from the Diocese, to implement a more open-hearted and reasonable approach to our regular financial giving. My thanks to our outgoing churchwardens, John and Stephen and to our treasurer, Charles Evans and to the parochial church council, but also to all of you who have supported Holy Cross Church throughout the past year. Each year sees this church grow in number and in commitment to the Church’s task and we look forward to what lies ahead as we celebrate this great year of Olympiad and Royal Jubilee. Please pray for this church in this Mass, and for grace to become more fully that which we are called to be – the church in the heart, the very heart, of King’s Cross.
In the cleansing of the Temple Jesus reminds us of the holiness of the church and of its place as the inhabitation of the God in whom we live and move and have our being. May we who receive from God so many blessings and graces in this place be also given to grace to fulfil in our own lives and in the life of God’s church his true purposes.
29th Feb 2012
He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
The graphic account of the exorcism of what Mark calls ‘unclean spirits’ must give us cause for concern if not actually fill us with alarm. It is impossible to feel ambivalent about an exorcism. Perhaps we have images of church gatherings that take place in super bowls where graphic examples of healing lie at the heart of a frenzied worship. Individuals are ‘slain by the spirit’ and fall back as if in a state of faint or collapse as the healing minister banishes the evil spirit. Everyone is charged with a state of ecstasy. There lies in much of this the strong power of auto suggestion and the hypnotising or the lulling of the audience into a trance. For many, however, these are bold acts of witness, manifest acts, which encourage the faithful to a passionate commitment to Christian faith in the calling forth of the name of Jesus. There are those of us who feel, however, that these acts are dangerously manipulative. The Church holds on to the sense that the power of God to heal should be channelled. That is because it recognises the reality which is human pain. Christian healing should express something of God’s presence with an equal sense of the divine otherness. Above all, great care should be taken in the care of individuals. Great care should be taken in the administration of spiritual healing. The Christian healer should not presume to take the place of an experienced physician or more importantly of God himself. Many have done so with dire consequences.
The evidence for spiritual and physical healing in the Gospels is abundant. In St Mark’s Gospel such healings exist as ‘signs and wonders’ in which lies the manifestation of the presence of Christ. The presence of Christ is, as the being of God, a healing presence in and of itself. To meet and to receive Christ, as we do in this Eucharist, brings with it the offer of our own healing. To take in and eat and drink the bread and wine in the Eucharist is to receive Christ, not as a token but as a reality. Whilst my reaction to the Christian sensationalist healer is one of sharp recoil, I must not reject the idea of Christian healing itself. The Church of which we are part, practises a healing ministry within its own long tradition, and shows forth through the sacraments a primary means of grace. It is an inseparable part of Christian Faith that we acknowledge the reality which is sacramental grace, a grace given to us in Baptism and in the Eucharist, but a grace also given crucially in the laying on of hands and anointing. While working at St Christopher’s Hospice in Sydenham under the leadership of Dame Ciceley Saunders, it was by meaningful coincidence that my predecessor here at Holy Cross, Fr Paul Lewis, was its Chaplain. And on many occasions, Fr Paul would arrive at a bedside, where the curtains would be closed, and anoint a patient. The words uttered from scripture were always taken from the Letter of James:
"Is any among you sick? Let them call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over the sick person, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick one, and the Lord will raise them up; and if they have committed sins, they will be forgiven" (Jas. 5:14–15).
What a profound and sure promise lies here! In it, we see how beautiful and true is the promise made to us from God and addressed to our entire being. It is the promise of God himself. Of the God who reveals himself to us but a God too, who lies hidden beneath and beyond the places of our own knowing. ‘The peace of God which passes all understanding’ are the words of our Blessing.
The Rite of Anointing had once been confused with what was called ‘last rites’ but in the context of the hospice it became a rite of healing over pain and hopelessness, a simple anointing which was a silent proclamation of the presence of God not as a mood or a feeling but as reality, conveying healing grace and come down through the centuries and in the sacraments of The Church, as a sign of love and oneness in the God from whom all life proceeds. The touch of God! I am sure now that the deep friendship and regard held between Dame Ciceley, the founder of the Hospice Movement and our former parish priest, Fr Paul, was significant. It was one which brought together what she called ‘fine clinical judgement and practice’ with the outpouring of spiritual grace embedded in the calling for the experienced elder, the one in whom the act of healing had found a loving, waiting, channel. Ciceley and Fr Paul were worthy practitioners of the art of healing because they believed in God and they understood life in all its fullness, in all its depth and complexity.
What a set of contrasts we are able to make, the one a sensationalist healing, and the other experienced as barely a whisper; witnessed in a simple, centuries old action. This healing spirit is channelled through the priest by virtue not of himself but of his ordination (the apostolic succession) and conveyed in and through the sacramental rite. Our Old and New Testament readings speak of the presence of false voices and the demoniac who declaims Jesus, as one who has, like many others since, displayed a dangerous and unbalanced state. But Jesus is for Mark, the still centre, in whose heart lies perfect peace and who comes to us as the gift of deep peace.
We must not divorce ourselves from some of the realities which these accounts open up for us of the need for our own healing and of the reality of healing grace. After all, we know all too well of how mental health issues and the plain fact of human depression and nervous breakdown has issued out of the understanding of who and how we are as moderns. There is too the proven relationship, established by Freud of the damaging effects of inner pain and negative feelings which have lain buried and unacknowledged and which hurt and limit our existence, of which mental illness is a predictable outcome. We speak very rightly of the ‘healing of memories’. For the Christian I believe, the outcome of these observations is the one which finds us in need of understanding and of the reaching out in hope to find mercy and healing. For some that might mean a psychotherapist, for others a revivalist meeting, but for the Christian there is the being of Christ. We find ourselves in the church open to both the reality and the possibility of God’s healing as we follow the Christ who had what we might call ‘healing authority’, the one which understands from the deepest level of human being.
The possibility of healing in Christ does not find us in a faint, slain by the Spirit, but as we are met by the spirit of God, This is a presence of mercy and forgiveness, which holds our longings and pain in a suspension of love, and which continues to hold us at those times when life tears at us and threatens to fragment that which is made to be whole:
It is the holding together that is hard –
The resisting of the centrifugal forces
Acting on mind and heart
That break the tenuous links of thought and feeling.
And then there is the fear (which on black days
Transmutes itself into a dark seducer
Parodying hope) that the next revolution of the hand
Upon the sadly common clock
Will bring the final, the inoperable rupture,
and burst the dams of past
And future pains.
It is the holding you must help us in (O God):
We cannot enter heaven in fragments
The gates will not allow of that.
And you must give the means to keep it
If you love us, as I fear you do.
Father John Ball, Parish Priest, Holy Cross Church,
Curate and Vicar 1969-1977
O God who are the only source of health and healing, the spirit of calm and the
heart of my being, grant to me such a consciousness of your indwelling
and surrounding presence that I may permit you to give me health and strength and
peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
19th Feb 2012
“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
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 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 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’.
So from the ground we felt that virtue branch
Through all our veins till we were whole, our wrists
As fresh and pure as water from a well,
Our hands made new to handle holy things,
The source of all our seeing rinsed and cleansed
Till earth and light and water entering there
Gave back to us the clear unfallen world.
We would have thrown our clothes away for lightness,
But that even they, though sour and travel stained,
Seemed, like our flesh, made of immortal substance,
And the soiled flax and wool lay light upon us
Like friendly wonders, flower and flock entwined
As in a morning field. Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
Edwin Muir (1887-1959)