Today we come to the end of what has been a very short Epiphany season. We began a little over a month ago—on January 6—as we marked the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem, bearing their gifts for the newborn king. Since then we’ve remembered the Baptism of our Lord and our own baptisms—as we listened for the voice of God that claimed not only Jesus but us as “beloved of God” And then on to a wedding in Cana of Galilee, where the water is not only turned into wine but the best is saved for last. And then these past two weeks we have seen the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in the synagogue of his hometown in Nazareth. Finally we have reached our destination: the Mount of the Transfiguration.
Those have been the gospel readings over these past five weeks. During this same time our epistle readings have been coming from Paul’s letters to the Church in Corinth. Two weeks ago, Karen reminded us that they were a challenging bunch there, in Corinth. By all accounts they were profoundly gifted and cosmopolitan. So when Paul tells them about spiritual gifts he is talking with people who have lots of them. The challenge they face, however, is that they are going in a hundred different directions. So Paul counsels them to remember that they are one body and then he reminds them (as Jacqueline reminded us last weekend) that without faith, hope and love—and especially love—their gifts are nothing more than noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. Today we heard these words:
…all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
Did you get that? It’s not only Jesus who was transfigured on the Mount of the Transfiguration, but Paul says that we are being changed. You and I are being made new; we are being transfigured. You may recall how last week in that famous passage about faith, hope, and love that Paul says something like, “now we see through the glass darkly; then we shall see face to face.” Today he seems to be suggesting that when we see God the face of God we begin to see ourselves in a new light. We begin to walk as children of light.
This is why we do not lose heart. This is why we have such hope and act with great boldness. This is how we are able to love one another: because with unveiled faces we see the glory of the Lord reflected in a mirror, and we know that we are being transformed into the image of Christ—that we are growing into the full stature of Christ. These are remarkable words to take with us into the season of Lent, which begins on Wednesday.
Personally, I feel Eucharistic C is a bit dated. More than any other liturgy in The Prayerbook it feels to me like we are going back in time to the 1970s, which of course is when that liturgy was written; all of those “planets in their courses and this fragile earth, our island home.” Even so, I love Prayer C for just this reason: because it invites us to consider the whole cosmos, space—the final frontier and all of that. Because in that prayer especially we are aware that science and religion are not opposites, but just different ways of knowing—and that exploring the mysteries of creation is also to see God’s hand at work in the world around us. What we have been praying for these past five weeks is that God might “open our eyes” to notice. These themes are not merely about remembering a God who was made manifest once upon a time in a galaxy far away, but of a God who is, even now, being made manifest in our very midst. What we pray for are eyes to see.
On the Mount of the Transfiguration, God is made manifest in Jesus, the Light of the world. God very often speaks on mountaintops in the Bible, maybe for the same reason that so many of us feel closer to God when we hike up a mountain and look out over the vista. We speak of “mountaintop experiences” as a metaphor for our spiritual epiphanies because the landscape itself very often helps to open our eyes to see God’s hand at work in the world around us. In such moments we may have the experience of knowing God more fully and of being more fully known by God.
There is a shadow side here, however; or at least a temptation. Such moments are fleeting; and yet it is tempting to want to try to hold onto them forever, and maybe even of trying to make them normative. I think that is primarily what is going on in the disciples’ desire to build booths on the Mount of the Transfiguration. In truth, every moment is fleeting. The good times, the hard times—time is an ever flowing stream. Mountaintop moments in our lives are precious and a gift, for sure. But the journey of faith is not one long extended mountaintop experience. We are called to listen to the Voice of God in this story, which makes clear that we are called to listen to, and then follow Jesus by putting one foot in front of the other. The challenge of faith is to live each moment; not to stay on a mountaintop in booths. We are a people of the Way, and specifically a people called to follow Jesus on the Way of the Cross.
So liturgically, the wisdom of remembering the Transfiguration today is to prepare us to take the next steps in the journey of faith into Lent, which begins this Wednesday: to resolutely set our faces toward Jerusalem. I want to interrupt this sermon with a commercial: an invitation to please make time to be here on Wednesday when we remember together that we are dust, which is simply to say that we do not have all the time in the world and therefore we need to make the most of it. For Christ’s sake and our own. Many of us grew up in faith traditions like the Roman Church where Ash Wednesday was a normative practice. Some of us grew up in more Protestant traditions where we would not be caught dead with ashes on our foreheads so as not to be mistaken for being “Catholics.” But I invite all of us who are here now to journey with me into a holy Lent and begin again together on Wednesday.
Now there is one caveat I need to share with all of you. Everything that I have said to you so far today is shaped by the Western Christian liturgical calendar. While there may be differences between Methodists and Lutherans and Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, we all follow this same basic path from Epiphany to the Jordan River and then on to Cana of Galilee and ultimately to the Mount of the Transfiguration; and from there to Ash Wednesday and ultimately to Easter morning where “cross and Easter day attest, God in flesh made manifest.”
While my own experience of the Christian tradition has been quite ecumenical, it has mostly been very western. A few years ago, however, I had a chance to travel in the Holy Land, where I was reminded once more of the rich traditions of Orthodoxy that are rooted in the Church’s experience in the east: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and others. One of the surprises was the ever-present reminder that Christianity is, at its roots, an eastern religion that spread to the west. You feel that and you smell it and you see it when you walk into a place like the Church of the Nativity or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher!
Alexander Schmemman was the Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, New York, a leading liturgical scholar in Orthodox Christianity in the twentieth century. A few years ago I read his book on Orthodox Lenten practices, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha. As much as I love the Epiphany season and find this journey we have been on makes so much sense to my western mind, reading Schmemman’s book changed the way I think about preparing for Lent. In Orthodoxy, the weeks leading up to “Great Lent” are very different from what I have been describing to you. In the five weeks before Lent, the Orthodox focus on five themes: Desire for God (the story of Zacchaeus), Humility (the Publican and the Pharisee), Return from Exile (the parable of the Prodigal Son), Last Judgment, and then finally, Forgiveness Sunday. The Orthodox are clearer than we have been in the west that Lent is not a time to wallow in guilt or shame, but an invitation to enter more deeply into the mystery of God’s abundant love—which then allows us to more fully embrace the Paschal mystery by becoming instruments of God’s peace and ambassadors of reconciliation. As we participate in Christ’s victory over sin and death.
Sin is the experience of division, opposition, separation, and hatred. The first chink in the armor of the mighty fortress of sin, Schmemman says, is forgiveness, which opens a pathway to unity, solidarity, and love. It is a breakthrough to a new reality, to God’s reality. “To forgive,” Schmemman writes, “is to reject the hopeless dead-ends of human relations and refer them to Christ.”
Orthodox Easter usually falls on a different day than our western Easter and this year they are about as far apart as they ever get: we’ll celebrate Easter here on March 31, but the Orthodox won’t do so until May 5. So they won’t even begin Lent until March 18 when we’ll be almost finished. But on March 17 as they are getting ready for Lent, they’ll celebrate Forgiveness Sunday (or Cheesefare Sunday as it is also called.) On that last Sunday before Lent begins, there will be an elaborate dance where each person in worship says to every other person there, “Forgive me, for I have sinned.”
Now I am not going to ask you to dance. But I want you to think about that for a moment—what it would be like today for you to ask each person here for forgiveness. And then those beyond this room whom you have hurt as well. Now I don’t need to tell you how hard it is to forgive someone who has hurt us very badly. But at the very least, even when we aren’t yet able to forgive someone, we can remember that God forgives all who confess their sins and are truly penitent. So the liturgical response to the one who says, “Forgive me for I have sinned” is not “I forgive you”—because, to be honest, that just might not yet be true. So here is the liturgical response: “God has forgiven you.” Forgive me, for I have sinned. God has forgiven you.
The spirit of Lent, Schmemman says, is an invitation to experience that mysterious liberation that makes us “light and peaceful,” by illuminating an inner beauty that he compares to “an early ray of the sun which, while it is still dark in the valley, begins to lighten up the top of the mountain.” Maybe that image gives us a connection between east and west! Maybe that is where the Mount of the Transfiguration converges with Forgiveness Sunday, taking us, as Don Henley once put it, to “the heart of the matter”—which is indeed about forgiveness.
Imagine yourself both saying those words to someone whom you have hurt, and imagine someone whom you have hurt saying these words to you. Maybe this Lent you will find you need to go say them for real and in person or in writing to someone. Forgive me, for I am a sinner. Maybe you just can’t go there yet. But listen at least, even now for good news, even when we are not yet ready to let it go: God forgives you, be at peace. Let this simple prayer of confession lead you, lead us, into a holy Lent, until we once again sing our alleluias on Easter morning and embrace the new and liberating life that is ours in Jesus Christ: a life characterized by hope, boldness, freedom and abundant life.