LIGHT OF LIGHT
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
Lections: Exod 34:29-35; Ps 99; 2 Cor 3:12-4:2; Luke 9: 28-36.
The story of light is the story of God. This is the story we tell when we have grown unafraid, because our lives have settled into the familiar. The spectrum of our experience narrows, and our way flattens out, and we put aside the presence which is Glory. So the story of light begins on a mountain, and the mountain is one we haven’t climbed. On the mountain there is something we need, some news about the life we have covered up, so someone has to climb the mountain for us.
Moses is one of the persons that goes into the mountain. His mountain is named Mount Sinai. Moses scares us. We are afraid to go near him; when he comes down from the mountain, “The skin of the face of Moses shone, because he had been talking to God.” Moses delivers his message, and then he has to veil his face; but whenever Moses goes up the mountain, “he would take the veil off.” God speaks to Moses “out of the pillar of cloud” that is his holy hill. Moses tells us what he hears, and then he covers his face. So our lives remain incomplete: “our minds are hardened,” for “a veil lies over our minds.”Today we listen to the part of the story where the veil is removed. Today Christ has gone into the mountain for us, and he has taken three of us his disciples. Christ’s mountain is named Mt. Tabor, and his disciples are granted a vision of the metamorphosis of their teacher and our lives: “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the 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.” This is the event that prepares the church for the Good Friday Passion and the Easter Resurrection.
The story of light is the story we tell on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. This story has been given many names. The Latin Quinquagesima refers to the 50 days before Easter, and its reading from Luke focuses on the Lenten journey about to commence, when “Jesus took the twelve aside and said, ‘Lo, we go to Jerusalem, and everything written by the prophets about the Son of Man shall be fulfilled.” The Eastern Orthodox churches call this Sunday “Cheesefare Sunday” or “Forgiveness Sunday.” The name “Cheesefare Sunday” refers to the end of the preceding week’s preparation for fasting, when all of a household’s cheese and dairy products are consumed. The Orthodox Lenten fast is traditionally vegetarian and vegan, so “Cheesefare Sunday” focuses on the simplicity and discipline that characterize discipleship. “Forgiveness Sunday” refers to the special service of repentance that on this day immediately follows Sunday’s Eucharist. During this service, all the members of the worshipping community request and receive forgiveness from one another, for any and all offence they have caused each other during the preceding year. After the service, the church empties in silence, and the Lenten fast begins by keeping silence for the rest of the day.
The Western emphasis on Lenten confession, penance and absolution is signified by the Middle English name “Shrove Sunday,” and the link between forgiveness and love is emphasized by the name “Estomihi.” On this Sunday, John Wesley preached in praise of love from the 13th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The Revised Common Lectionary that we use today moves the celebration of Transfiguration from its earlier August feast date to this Sunday, so that Christ’s revelation of his glory will sustain us, as his disciples were sustained, during the Christ’s journey to the cross.
The glory of Christ is an experience we have of God’s presence. Each of us experiences God in many different ways, but these are usually partial, measured experiences of his presence. Our common experience of God’s glory is like the experience of everyday light. The Transfiguration of our Lord, however, is an uncommonly full experience of God’s splendor, equal but opposite to the darkness we discover in ourselves. The story of light frightens us because it is told in the shadow of Good Friday, when we will each take a turn driving a nail through the body of Jesus and into his cross.
We should not be mistaken about what we have made of human nature: the ashes we mark our forehead with on Wednesday are the residue of the Palms we welcome Jesus with on his entry into Jerusalem. God, out of love, creates us; and out of love again, God comes to live with us; we greet God with songs of praise, we sit at his feet and hear him as he teaches us about all of creation and the parts that are ours to play within its vast estate, and then we turn on him and kill him. How fully we experience the glory of God depends upon how fully we experience our own depravity. Orthodox fasting, praying, and almsgiving; Latin confession, penance, and absolution: these are practices based on the recognition that human beings are enslaved by extremely dark forces of their own making. Human beings have created a reality that is the obverse of love and light. Love and light are the offering of hospitality; our life is marked by treachery.
We cannot be mistaken: God is a supernatural presence. There is nothing natural about either love or light. The different names for this Sunday call to mind partial aspects of the two-sided dimension of Lent: the supernatural reality of creation and the human sub-creation of darkness. Easter is 50 days away. Our task is to unveil the entirety of the two-sided dimension of Lent, all of its light and all of its darkness, in the next fifty days.
The unveiling of light that transfigures Jesus permits us a vision of being outside of time and space. The sun our planet orbits is a metaphor for this reality, the “light of light” that all creation points at. Our everyday experience of the world gets things backwards. We mistake the shadow for the reality. Whenever we look into the sky and see light, we are seeing a metaphor. We are experiencing an image of God’s glory. When we see God’s glory, we are seeing reality.
This experience, the experience the disciples underwent on Mt. Tabor, is not fleeting, like a thought. The metamorphosis of our Lord is not illusory: the truth displayed will move the heart. We are changed by it. And because it is an experience of God’s glory, we are moved by it away from the darkness we create and toward the light and love of God. We are moved to love God, rather than ourselves. We are moved to re-engage with the teachings of Jesus.
On the occasion of the Transfiguration, God shows us his glory, the light and love that register his presence, and God teaches us. He gives us what we need to live, and he does this with just one word: Listen.
A lot happens very quickly in today’s Gospel reading. Imagine yourself in the position of any one of the three apostles: John, Peter, or James. Jesus is taking you for a climb up Mt. Tabor. You are just behind him, when he reaches the top and stops. You can see the flat valley stretching into the distance beyond your teacher. All of a sudden, “his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightening.” Then two men, Moses and Elijah, appear “in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus.” You recognize Moses, the lawgiver, from the tablet in his arms, and Elijah, the prophet, from his aged appearance. As we know from the 2nd Book of Kings, Elijah has never died; while yet alive, he was taken in a chariot of fire into the sky.
Spellbound you watch Jesus, Moses, and Elijah talking, and you try to take it all in. They are talking about your teacher going away, and you become sleepy from incomprehension. Then you shake yourself awake. Moses and Elijah are preparing to go, and still the light hasn’t diminished. You don’t know what to think, so if you are Peter you ask Jesus for permission to make three booths, one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for Jesus himself. This kind of booth is made from twigs and branches; the booths resemble huts or tents, like those the Israelites sheltered in when they journeyed with Moses in the wilderness.
No one has ever seen anything like what you are seeing, but you don’t lose your senses. You have learned to fear God. You know to keep his covenant and remember his commandments. You have read in Exodus the instructions God gave Moses for building the hut that sheltered the ark of the covenant. At the annual festival of Tabernacles, you join in with the other pilgrims and make a small booth to remind yourself of the impermanence of shelters in the wilderness. You recall how a cloud, when the ark’s shelter was completed, “covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of God filled the tabernacle.” The tabernacle became a mountain on the move. And now, as you are talking, a cloud appears and covers you, and God speaks from the cloud.
You have been right to fear God, but God no longer requires a tabernacle to meet his people. From the cloud that you have entered, God says again the words he spoke when Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordon: “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Then God says a new thing: “Listen to him.” Immediately the cloud covering is gone and Jesus is again standing in front of you, alone, and you are as you were.
This is what you will remember: the splendor with which your teacher shown – his glorified appearance – and God saying, “Listen: Listen to my Son.”
Listen is the word you carry, with your changed heart, back down the mountain. Along with this one word, “Listen,” you puzzle over the feeling that something important eludes you, something Jesus discussed with Moses and Elijah, that he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. All of creation and history will someday know what happened on this remote mountaintop, but for the time being, you discuss it with no one. You keep it all to yourself, the vision you have had of God’s presence and the splendor of his glory, as you continue with Jesus on his journey.
The Transfiguration of our Lord reveals the fulfillment of our being. The reality of its parallel dimension will haunt us. We are shown how we will appear to each other when we are glorified. Yet our present reality remains very different.
Experience is not an end in itself. We are to be changed in an immeasurable sense; we are to be made forever different. How is this to be, when in our lifetime, we seem to change incrementally, if at all? The spectrum of our experience narrows: we avoid the intensity of light, so we fail to recognize the intensity of the darkness we accommodate daily. Lent challenges us to learn and grow, to go into the mountain ourselves. And God tells us to do this by listening. Listen to Jesus. Listen to our teacher.
By praying, fasting, and almsgiving, let us stop listening to ourselves and redirect our attention toward God, because “light of light” illuminates the darkness that enslaves us. This is the knowledge we take from Scripture, as we begin our Lenten journey. May God grant us the grace to listen. May God grant each of us a great Lent.