Monday, August 6, 2012

The Radiance of the Father

The photo above was taken by me from the traditional site of the Mount of the Transfiguration, where I presided at a celebration of the Holy Eucharist with a group of pilgrims in a course called "The Palestine of Jesus" in January 2010.

The first sermon I ever preached was on the Last Sunday of Epiphany at the Hawley United Methodist Church - my home congregation. I was a first-year seminarian at Drew. The Gospel reading for "Last Epiphany" is the Transfiguration of Jesus. In that liturgical context, Transfiguration becomes the culmination of a series of "epiphanies" (or revealings) of the Christ that begin when the magi arrive to pay him homage, and include his Baptism in the Jordan, his miracle of turning water into wine at Cana, and many healings. In all of these ways, the light shines forth in the darkness and is made manifest in the world. By the time we journey with Peter and James and John to the Mount of the Transfiguration we get the point.

And then, of course, the booths must not be built; for we must come down the mountain and set our faces toward Jerusalem. This pre-Lenten context matters. In fact, I realize that from the very first time I ever preached on this text all those years ago to the present day, I have rarely lingered long on the mountaintop. Very often my sermons on this occasion are a review of Epiphany and a preview of the Lenten journey that lies ahead. This liturgical context matters, and it's right in many ways.

But there is another tradition, more prominent among Eastern Orthodox Christians, who celebrate this Feast of the Transfiguration in it's own right today, August 6. This alternative date also is part of the Episcopal calendar, but rarely do we make as much of of a deal about it; first of all it's summertime and secondly, we've already done Transfiguration at Last Epiphany!

But there is wisdom in taking time to ponder this event recounted in Luke 9:28-36. The context of a lazy August day allows us to linger a little longer, without the pressure of thinking about Lent. It is true that Jesus does not allow us to stay there forever, and that we are not there to build booths. But like any mountaintop experience; there is no reason we should not gaze upon Jesus in all of his full glory, and breathe it all in, and take in the view for a little while, at least. I love this prayer from the Orthodox tradition:
On the Mountain You were Transfigured, O Christ God,
And Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it;
So that when they would behold You crucified,
They would understand that Your suffering was voluntary,
And would proclaim to the world,
That You are truly the Radiance of the Father!
To behold Christ, transfigured, to behold his glory "as far as we can see it" ultimately changes (and transfigures) us. The Orthodox word for this is theosis or "deification." To western ears it sounds almost heretical: this notion that (as Athanasius put it) "the Son of God became human, that we might become god." Yet that is what this day is about: to gaze upon Christ in all of his glory is to be invited in and to participate more fully and mystically in the divine life.

To speak in these ways is not to deny our broken and fallen nature. After all, how could we celebrate this feast day without remembering that today also marks the 67th Anniversary of the Bombing of Hiroshima? We know all too well the evil of which humans, of which we, are capable. We don't even need to look back 67 years; we grieve today with those who lost loved ones in yet another tragic shooting, this most recent one at a Sikh Temple in Wisconson. We have a long way to go toward theosis.

Even so, we pause on this day to gaze upon the transfigured Christ: to behold his glory. And to ask God to transfigure us: to transform our minds and our hearts and our bodies, to make us one with Christ, and in Christ; to make us instruments of God's peace.

No comments:

Post a Comment