Sermon, 19th February 2023 Quinquagesima & Transfiguration – Tessa Lang

From today’s reading of the Gospel of St Matthew, 17: v5
While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and
behold a voice out of the cloud which said,
This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.
And 2 Peter 1: v19
19 We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well
that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the
day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts.

May I speak in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Amen.
A year ago we met at the same mountain on the same day – the last
Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Now as then, we are buffeted by
extreme politics and conflict, by natural disasters and self-induced
climate change. Uncertainty and inequality shred our social contract and
too few birds sing. Now as then, we find community, meaning, and
pastry in this beautiful and beloved place. Surely there is no better time
to open our hearts to today’s gospel, an exquisite and sufficient
illumination of our Christian faith and heritage: past, present, future,
eternal.

All three synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke –report the event:
it is important that Christians know and remember this story. But what
about John? After all, he was one of the three eyewitnesses. Is he silent
about the Transfiguration?

On the contrary, I believe we can read the Prologue from St. John as a
glorious poem of transfiguration, from “in the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God”; including “In
him was life, and the life was the light of mankind”; and conclusively,
“The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his
glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and
truth.” As such, John’s passage is no less a powerful testimony due to
its lyrical and figurative expression. His words speak to the eternal truth
at the heart of the story and shine as brightly as Matthew’s vivid report or
glowing icons that seek to recreate theological narrative as seen
experience.

Like the three apostles on the mountain and as featured in our spotlight
verse introducing this sermon, we learn truth and grow in faith through
our senses and within our hearts…when we listen to and heed their
message. We are wired by a loving God to long for and turn to the light
of salvation, and to hear the living God speak through his word.
Otherwise, we are incapable of improvement. Paradoxically, Jesus is
not the one who undergoes metamorphosis atop the Mount of
Transfiguration: he is ever and always fully God and fully human. It is
our eyes and ears and hearts that must be transfigured and opened to
behold him, both in his majesty and as the sacrificial lamb of our
salvation.

That is the aim of the stunning and intricate icon on the cover of the
Order of Service, particularly as reproduced in full colour on this week’s
parish e-mail. Painted by a 14th century priest and poet, Theophanes,
the composition moves the eye through time, place, and
event…simultaneously inhabiting metaphysical and physical realms: it is
literally a sermon in paint.

An image of the Transfiguration also appears on the central panel of the
reredos, itself a degree programme in theology. Here Christ is joined by
Moses and Elijah in a supernatural gathering before three awe-struck
apostles. This image shines forth behind the high altar every day of the
year…except when concealed during Lent, now looming. It is good to
give it some attention before the beauty of our sanctuary is veiled for the
duration; perhaps it will be food for contemplation of our shared
experience of the transfiguration, available and active within us even
when removed from sight.

One year ago, St. Luke was our guide to the mountain top; this year St.
Matthew leads the way for our bi-annual Transfiguration retreat. Though
its official Feast Day is 6 August, closer to the historical real time the
biblical event takes place, the Transfiguration is twinned with the last
Sunday of Shrovetide – today – about 6 months earlier in the calendar
year, on the cusp of Lent, and some 50 days before Easter Day. Its
position on the liturgical calendar gives rise to the name –
Quinquagesima or literally ‘fifty days’ in that language so excellent for
sequence, Latin. It also ensures that each half of the calendar year
includes a day to bask in transfiguration glory, which radiates blessing
for all. Not least because it is day 1 of a 3-day final countdown of pre-
Lenten indulgences, should your larder be fortunate to hold stocks of
any foods or treats you now plan to restrict during 40 days of fasting and
penitence in preparation for Holy Week, Passion and Resurrection.
For those with maths brains calculating how to divide 40 fast days into a
50-day period culminating in the Paschal Feast, and for others with keen
appetites and high anxiety, rest assured that all goodies are welcomed
back on Sundays, as they have been on an occasional Thursday or
Saturday when different rules regarding pre-Paschal fasting have come
into and gone out of practice. These days, media outlets and best seller
lists are populated with the benefits of an extended period of intermittent
fasting or “going dry” on usual indulgences, from meat to merlot,
together with structured self-examination – which could be likened to
journaling or mindfulness or self-help. Lenten discipline is not an
attempt to drag you back to the Middle Ages, but to engage you with
healing and drawing closer to your true self by moving closer to the God
in whose image you were made.

As a prospective Lenten pilgrim, welcome to Quinquagesima Sunday
2023 when thoughts of pancakes, butter and cream; meat and cheese;
sugar and alcohol, may be permitted to dance in our heads, so long as
you have packed your metaphorical knapsack and renewed your faith in
the gospel roadmap for God’s plan.

Let’s start at the bottom of that high mountain. On second thought, let’s
start at the end of the previous chapter of Matthew, remembering that
time points to meaning from Genesis 1:1 to Revelations 22:21. In its
closing verses (not really a cheat as the division of text post-dates its
writing plus Mark includes it within his account), Peter “confesses” for
the first time that Jesus is “the Christ, the son of the living God.” In
reply, Jesus tells the apostles for the first time that he must die and be
raised again on the third day. This is a contravention of the one-anddone
Messiah favoured by first century Judaism as the God and king
who comes in triumph to restore the temporal power of the Hebrew
people.

There are passages in the psalms and Zechariah that describe
crucifixion hundreds of years before Jesus appears, plus Isiah’s wellknown
depiction of Messiah as the Suffering Servant who bears the
disease and punishments for Israel’s sins. However, this aspect of
messianic function isn’t in the foreground; equally, a promise to rise
again elicits scant acknowledgment from Jesus’ disappointed disciples.
Rebuffing Peter’s indignant protest against a suffering and slain
Messiah, Jesus further promises “verily” that some of those present will
not die “till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom”. Soon
enough, seeing will be believing, at least for some.

The very first line of the following verse picks up this timeline, setting the
Transfiguration “after 6 days” when Jesus calls Peter and the brothers
James and John to come with him up into a high mountain. Here are
echoes of the Genesis creation account, where on the 6th day, God
made man and woman in his own image. Yet the process was not
complete until the 7th day, when he “blessed and sanc

The rest of the disciples are left at the bottom of the mountain, and later
in the chapter you may read Jesus’ review of how well their time was
spent! Of course, he knew that all his disciples were truly stuck in 6th
day limbo, and it was time to breathe life into their faith, starting with his
top team. He would combine all that was familiar to them about the Law
and the Prophets, the Messiah and the Kingdom into one unforgettable
experience of his godhood within the triune godhead. It will embody and
illuminate the Cross, the Resurrection, and the glory of God’s Kingdom
as perfect and inevitable fulfilment of divine plan to redeem creation from
its fallen imperfection. No wonder it is a story told twice each year! We
could benefit from remembering it every day.

Location, like time, signifies meaning throughout the Bible, and high
mountains are where God interacts with his messengers on earth, the
prophets. Other signifiers include light and dark; natural phenomena
such as cloud and waters; physical manifestations such as voice, fire,
and wind; appearance of otherworldly beings or those from the past or
future –something from all categories appears in the Transfiguration
narrative and many feature in Theophanes’ icon.

Front and centre is the pure white light of Christ in full glory, a white that
outshines the glimmering gold of the highest heavens. Its beams create
a star-like structure of radiance connecting above to below with precise
geometry. His right hand is raised in blessing, two fingers aloft and
three together symbolising the trinity. A cloud tinted celestial blue
descends, approaching Christ like a wing-shaped embrace as symbol of
God the father’s presence; it also serves as protective shield for the
apostles. We can now visualise the mystical unity of divinity, with Jesus
Christ at its centre: as perfect sacrifice, great High Priest, and
indestructible Temple for the children of God below; as only Son to the
Father above; as the one who sends the Holy Spirit to comfort, protect,
and give life.

The lower slopes and the apostles themselves are shaded and earthtoned,
deeper on the left side to represent the past and ascent of the
mount, brighter on the right side to light their descent after witnessing
Jesus’ radiance before travelling into the future. Darkest are small cavelike
openings into the mountain, the larger ones to the side like tunnels
through the mountain, the smaller central ones foreshadowing the
passion in Gethsemane Garden and the empty tomb.

The men themselves do not reach the summit and appear overwhelmed
with exhaustion and awe, perhaps just waking from end-of- journey
sleep well below the level of their transfigured Lord’s feet. Standing to
the left is the prophet Elijah, taken into the heavens some 800 years
ago, and to the right, patriarch Moses, the lawgiver resting in a burial
place known only to God almighty these past 1500 years. Both are
instantly recognisable as they bow to the Lord, attended by angelic
beings on a small cloud floating above them, dim in comparison to the
shekinah of God’s presence. Neither eminence is a stranger to
mountain top summits with the Almighty, and Elijah is foretold to appear
just before the coming of the Messiah.

Though John averts his eyes and brother James covers his, Peter raises
head and hand in emphasis, for he has something to say! To him, the
scene looks like Jesus appearing in glory, attended by Elijah as foretold,
accompanied by Moses, occurring at the time of Sukkot when Israel
commemorates 40 years in the desert on the way to the Promised Land.
Why, this is a perfect opportunity for the Messiah to appear in majesty
during a high holiday without the need for suffering and death. “Tis
good, Lord, to be here”! Let us build 3 tabernacles, (tents or temporary
structures) one for each of you…effectively, let’s bring the Kingdom
home right here, right now.

He is interrupted before he can finish as the cloud overshadows them
and the voice of God speaks from its depths:
“This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased: hear ye him.
The cloud vanishes, Jesus appears on his own in his familiar form, and
there is nothing to do but arise and go with him down the mountain,
across the plains, to the appointed time of Calvary. Further, to heed his
words to fear not and to say nothing about what you have seen and
heard until the resurrection. For the Son of God is the eternal
embodiment of prophecy AND the new Moses, sent to lead people
everywhere out of the slavery of sin, according to his Father’s plan.
For us today as it was over 2000 years ago for Peter, James and John,
spiritual rebirth is sorely needed. In the Transfiguration, Jesus takes us
to that place where we are again connected to the sight, voice, love, and
certain knowledge of the ever-loving triune God. After all, it is good for
us to be here. AMEN

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