The Shining

Transfiguration

~

There’s something appropriate about the celebration of the birth of Jesus in late December. The early dark winter nights obscure even the obvious; they shroud still more what lies concealed and hard to see or grasp. The child of Bethlehem is just that, a child. Who really knows what and who he is, what and who he’ll become. His story, beginning in the depths of this world’s seasonal darkness, has yet to unfold; his light, as the Light of the world, has yet really to shine.

 

But mid-summer is different. Its high, clear sun reveals what’s around us and before us with an astringent honesty. Our light, even scanty, clothing shows us a bit more obviously as we are; time away from it all, and the slow pace of hot afternoons, opens us up to one another with opportunities that winter doesn’t so readily offer.

The contrast of those two seasons points up the contrast between the feast of Christmas and the feast of the Transfiguration. The two festivals have a common concern: the presence of God among us in Jesus of Nazareth. But the manner of their message differs, but the medium of that message differs.

At Christmas God steps discretely, silently through the door into our human situation. ‘How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given...’—that’s what we sing at Christmas in the quiet of the midnight Mass.[1] At the Transfiguration that door is thrown wide open so that Christ’s person and presence is, for a moment, fully declared so that the king is ‘seen’ in his beauty.[2] We think of Psalm 29: ‘Who is this king of glory, the Lord of Hosts, he is the king of glory’. By the time the moment of shining comes, Jesus can be known to others for who he is; the obscure suggestions at his birth, the secret message of his identity at his baptism—“This is my Son, my beloved...”—are now shared, shared with a chosen few, but still made clearly known and shared. What the clutch of shepherds gazed on in Bethlehem with wrapt perplexity, the three disciples beheld on the mountain of transfiguration fully and forthrightly, and in a privileged awe. “Tis good, Lord, to be here!”

But who is this Jesus? Who is this Lord?

He is a place of meeting. If all creation is the place where God’s glory dwells, then ‘within that creation God has chosen his dearly loved humankind to be the heart of his indwelling’.[3]

Bethlehem offers an inkling, Emmanuel – ‘God with us’. The Holy Mountain reveals the shining, God within us; at first a thin shaft of light in a darkened stable of beasts; but then this brilliant blaze of God’s own light effulgent within and from the body of the Lord.

No wonder they were awe-struck.

What Jew, steeped so thoroughly in the moral world of the covenant with God, the Law and the prophets, would have supposed that God’s destiny for us could be as, well, burnished and bright? that humankind, despite all its stumbling and fumbling, its ignorance and meanness, could really be ‘into God united’, as one of our Christian forebears put it, so that we might ‘live as it were the life of God’?[4]

Few if any of us would dare to propose to ourselves or to our family members and friends such a destiny. But this feast declares to us what St. Peter, in his second letter, insists on: namely, that we are baptized into Christ and follow his Way ‘so that we might become sharers of the divine life’ (2 Peter 1.4). The Transfiguration reveals what the Christmas blessing promises: that Christ might make us ‘partakers of the divine nature’.[5]

Whenever we celebrate Holy Baptism the newly baptized, child or adult, receives a lighted candle. “Receive this light”, we say as we pass over the flaming candle, “this is to show that you have passed from darkness to light. Shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father”.[6] Shining with the glory of God, that’s what human life is created for; that’s what Christian life aims to make happen. The study of the Bible, the habits of personal prayer, examination of conscience, public worship and the celebration of the sacraments—it’s all meant to light and fan that flame. It doesn’t just happen; we have to want it.

There’s a story from the spiritual tradition that points up the contrast between what we are and what we might be. It concerns two monks living in the Egyptian desert, Abba Joseph and Abba Lot.

Abba Joseph came to Abba Lot and said to him: ‘Father, according to my strength I keep a moderate rule of prayer and fasting, quiet and meditation, and as far as I can I control my imagination: what more must I do?’ And the old man rose and held his hands toward the sky so that his fingers became like flames of fire and he said: ‘If you will, you shall become all flame’.[7]

On the mount of transfiguration Jesus, who had always been a flame, suddenly shone like one in the presence of chosen witnesses. The message to us is this: we, who have never been a flame of divine glory, can become one; we too can be a flame, shining, like Jesus shines, to the glory of God the Father.

Amen.

~

The Revd Dr Charles Miller, Team Rector

St Helen’s Church, Abingdon-on-Thames

August 5th, 2018 - Transfiguration

 

[1] The carol ‘Silent Night’.

[2] From the American BCP (1979): ‘Mercifully grant that we...may by faith behold the King in his beauty’ (p.243). The CW psalms for the eve of the feast, Psalms 99 and 100 are royal psalms.

[3] A. M. Allchin, Participation in God (DLT: London, 1988), p. 68.

[4] Richard Hooker, Laws , I.x.2.

[5] Common Worship propers for the liturgy of the Eucharist ‘From Christmas Day until the Eve of the Epiphany’ (p. 303). On this theme in Hooker, see Allchin, Participation, pp. 7-15.

[6] The rite of baptismal Welcome.

[7] Sister Benedicta, SLG, The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers (Oxford: SLG Press, 1981), p.xii.