Tuesday, August 6, 2019

The Feast of the Transfiguration - Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Holy Cross MonasteryWest Park, NY
Rev. Matthew Wright, CRC
The Feast of the Transfiguration - Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Exodus 34:29-35
2 Peter 1:13-21
Luke 9:28-36

Click here for an audio version of the sermon.

This Gospel story of the Transfiguration is maybe my favorite.  And honestly, I’m not sure if I can say why I love it so much.  But I have a sense that it’s because in some way the whole mystery of the Gospel is present in this one moment, this one scene—and maybe all of the Gospel is present in every moment.  But this particular scene captures so many layers of meaning.  Some scholars have called it a “misplaced” or a “proleptic” Resurrection appearance, because it so resembles the later scenes of Jesus’ appearing.  It’s almost like the Transfiguration gives us a sneak preview of what’s to come at Easter.

And at the same time that the Resurrection is present here in advance, we’re also back at the moment of Jesus’ baptism, when the Divine Voice declares him “my Son, the Beloved” (or here in Luke’s telling, “my Chosen”).  And I think in a way, the Crucifixion, which John’s Gospel calls Jesus’ “glorification” is also present here, on the holy mountain.  We’re told that Moses and Elijah “were speaking of his departure [his death], which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”  And so, in some way, that too is here.

New Testament scholar Dale Allison calls the Transfiguration and the Crucifixion “twin images.”  He says that these two images, “represent the extremities of human experience… Jesus is the great illustration of both pain and hope; he is humanity exalted and humanity glorified.”  In some way, the Crucifixion is present here in the Transfiguration, and the Transfiguration shines through even in, maybe especially in, Jesus’ dying on the Cross.

Luke and the other Gospel authors shows us that this Transfiguration moment happens in some way outside of time—or that it contains all time—by showing us Moses and Elijah, two of the great figures of salvation history, also present.  And so I like to imagine, held in this one moment, the whole Gospel, the whole of salvation history: the light at the beginning, on the first day of creation, shining here; the light of the prophets who have come throughout time; the Voice at the baptism of Jesus, speaking still; Jesus’ glorification at the Crucifixion; the light bursting forth from the tomb at the Resurrection; and the light into which everything will be enfolded on the Last Day—all of it present, all of it held, in this one moment.

And again, maybe it would be better to say, all of it present in every moment; all of it seen, revealed, in this moment.  People who have had near-death experiences often talk about their entire life flashing before them in a moment.  Well, perhaps here we have the entire life of creation, from the Big Bang to the final return into God, flashing before us in the face of Jesus.

In Malcolm Guite’s Transfiguration sonnet, he writes that “The Love that dances at the heart of things / Shone out upon us from a human face” and he calls this seeing a “glimpse of how things really are.”  Here we see here in this moment the fullness of God, that’s actually present in every moment, and we see every moment held in the light of that fullness.

But how is it that we see this?  What allows such seeing?  Luke tells us that “Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.  And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed…”  While he was praying.  This whole text, this whole experience, hinges on the fact that Jesus was in prayer.  Prayer is the doorway into this light.  And by prayer, I don’t simply mean having a conversation with God—although that can certainly be a doorway—but rather I mean that deep state of abiding, of opening and surrendering into God’s love.  I imagine all of us have seen this same light dancing in the face, in the eyes, of someone who was truly prayerful.

Many of you here who are monks here will of course remember Avery Brooke, who was an oblate of this monastery.  In her book Finding God in the World she tells about an experience she had while meeting with someone for spiritual direction; she writes: “Once one of my directees had just done something of which she was horribly ashamed.  She was utterly mired in feelings of despair and sat in my study with her head buried in her hands.  No words of mine penetrated and I didn’t know what to do.  But God did, and I found myself caught up in a tremendous peace and surety.  It was so strong, I knew it must be showing on my face, so I told her over and over, ‘Look at me.  Just look at me.’  Finally, she did, and it was all right, as I knew it would be.  Afterward she said to me wonderingly, ‘You were the love of God to me.’  And I knew she was right and that the action had been God’s, not mine.”

We’re told in our scripture readings today that both Moses’ and Jesus’ faces shone in this way with Divine Light.  Prayer, surrendering into God, opens us to this Light, to the Eternal, allows it to shine through us, and puts all things in proper perspective, allowing us to see things as they really are.

The Eastern Orthodox tradition has spent a lot of time unpacking the Transfiguration, and the accepted teaching is that what is seen on Mount Tabor, shining through Jesus, is the Uncreated Light; what’s sometimes called the “Taborian Light.”  And they say that it’s this same Light that was encountered as “the glory of God” in the Hebrew Scriptures, that it’s also the Light of the Resurrection, and the light of the flames at Pentecost—one Light suffusing all Scripture, all creation—and in these moments, when our eyes are readied by prayer, and sometimes in moments that take us entirely by surprise, we see it.  And some theologians go so far to say that even the fires of hell are simply this One Light, encountered by narrow, squinty eyes that are not yet ready, not yet adjusted, to behold its full glory.  And so we start readying our eyes to behold this light now, in prayer.

St. Augustine looked inward in prayer and found this Light in his own soul.  In his Confessions, written towards the end of the fourth century, he says: “I entered into the secret closet of my soul, led by You; and this I could do because You were my helper. I entered, and beheld with the mysterious eye of my soul the Light that never changes [...]. It was not the common light which all flesh can see [...]. It was not like this, but different: altogether different from all such things. [...] One who knows the truth knows that Light and knows eternity.  Love knows it.”

A century later the man we remember as Dionysius the Areopagite wrote in his Celestial Hierarchy: “...the Light spreads itself generously toward us, and, in its power to unify, it stirs us by lifting us up.  It returns us back to the oneness and deifying simplicity of the Father who gathers us in.”

In one sense, the Gospel is nothing more than a constant revealing and refracting of this One Light: calling us Chosen and Beloved in the waters of baptism; on the Cross, revealing its presence in, and its holding of, our suffering and pain; in the Resurrection, assuring us that Love is stronger even than death—and all of it, the whole story, present today in the fullness of the Light of the Transfiguration.  This one simple and unifying Light of the Father, refracted in so many beautiful ways, always working to gather us in.

And we all are invited, challenged, to join in this work as we join with Jesus in prayer.  As he prayed, his face was changed.  As we pray, we are changed, and we become vessels of the Light.  In her poem “Mother Wisdom Speaks,” Christine Lore Webber writes about this process of being opened and transfigured in prayer, and I give her here the last word.  She writes—or better, God speaks:
Some of you I will hollow out.
I will make you a cave.
I will carve you so deep the stars will shine in your darkness.
You will be a bowl.
You will be the cup in the rock collecting rain.
I will hollow you with knives.
I will not do this to make you clean.
I will not do this to make you pure
You are clean already.
You are pure already.
I will do this because the world needs the hollowness of you.
I will do this for the space that you will be.
I will do this because you must be large.
A passage.
People will find their way through you.
A bowl.
People will eat from you.
And their hunger will not weaken them to death.
A cup to catch the sacred rain.
My daughter, do not cry.
Do not be afraid.
Nothing you need will be lost.
I am shaping you.
I am making you ready.
Light will flow in your hollowing.
You will be filled with light.
Your bones will shine.
The round open center of you will be radiant.
I will call you brilliant one.
I will call you daughter who is wide.
I will call you transformed.
I will call you transfigured.  Transfigured by the One Light that is the Love dancing at the heart of things; the One Light that holds every moment, that contains the fullness of the Gospel; the One Light by which we see things as they really are.  With Jesus, may we all so pray—and may we all be so transfigured.  Amen.

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