Tag Archives: Transfiguration

Homily: “On Transfiguration”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, 2017.

When relationships take a turn, there is often a feeling of loss. This applies to the regular, even every day, moments such as when a person leaves in the morning to go to work or leaves on a several-day long trip; the other person not leaving has that bittersweet feeling. On a larger scale, when a person changes jobs or retires from a job, the people remaining often experience a sense of loss or even a disorientation. Still more this is true about when a loved one dies—even the most faithful Christian will experience a profound sense of loss, an emptiness, some sort of vacuum. To provide some sort of offset to loss, we try to compensate with expressions of love. Kisses and hugs abound before the person leaves for work or a long trip; a going-away party often ensues for those changing or leaving their job; and in the case of death, a visitation and proper funeral are the means for the family and friends to express their love for the deceased as well as for each other in this time of grieving and loss.

The Church is taking a turn starting this week, the turn to the season of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday. We are moving from the glowing, light-filled seasons of Advent, Christmastide, and Epiphanytide into something starker, even grittier. Here too, though in a different way than the other examples, there is a dislocation. The wee baby Jesus, beheld in supernatural admiration by His Mother Mary, gives way to the fully mature and adult Jesus who is squarely facing his mortality, firmly on pilgrimage to Jerusalem by way of Cross. Continue reading

Homily: Religion and the Transfiguration

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 2016.

The Church year (from Advent through the last Sunday of Ordinary Time, called Christ the King) amid its inexhaustible riches can be said to broadly focus on two mysteries. From Advent through the Day of Pentecost, we focus on the mystery of Jesus Christ, the life of the Son of God and Second Person of the Holy Trinity. From the Day of Pentecost through Christ the King, we focus on the mystery of the Church, the life of the Body of Christ on earth and all of visible creation (called the Church Militant), in the Intermediate State of Paradise (called the Church Expectant), and in heaven itself (called the Church Triumphant).

This is pertinent because the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus occurs twice during the Church year. It is always the appointed Gospel for the last Sunday after Epiphany, before the season of Lent; and it is appointed, of course, for the Feast of the Transfiguration. Therefore, the calendar suggests that there are two perspectives upon which to reflect on the Transfiguration. Whereas before Lent, we focus on what the Gospel account reveals about the mystery of Jesus, today we consider what it reveals about the mystery of the Church—the relationship that the angels, saints, faithfully departed, and all the baptized, including us have with Jesus Christ. Bluntly, before Lent, it is “What does this say about Jesus?”; today, it is “What does this say about us?”

All three Lessons involve the image of a holy mountain. The idea of scaling a mountain has remained the classic analogy for spiritual pilgrimage. As a matter of course, what we know about climbing mountains is that it is hard work which requires discipline, courage, stamina—days which are dull, even monotonous, as well days occasionally adventurous and exhilarating, yet so because of the disciplined plod. Moses had already led the Israelites for some time before he had his mountaintop experience, and the twelve disciples, including Peter, John and James, had already followed Jesus for some time before theirs. Mountain-top experiences are relatively rare, and they are the fruits of labor.

One of the purposes of the Feast of the Transfiguration is to be a harvest for us, the People of God, who have been concerned of late with the relatively mundane tasks of religion—the activities by which we praise, reverence and serve our Lord, learning about the means by which our souls are saved; about sin and its cure, humility; religion as summarized in our baptismal covenant: continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the daily prayers, and it is lived out representing Jesus in our homes, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, seeking harmony with the created order, resisting sin: loving God and neighbor. It is very much like the work required to grow vegetables from seed—less the excitement of the planting as much as when the novelty wears off: pulling weeds, watering, pruning. Mundane, yet: ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened for you—the Church does not teach, labor in the vineyard and the fruits might come; no, the Church teaches, practice religion and they will come.

Historically, the Feast of the Transfiguration traces to about the 4th century, and the earliest evidence points to its origination in early monastic communities in the desert of Egypt. These Christians living austere lives of quiet obedience, strict daily discipline and extended periods daily of silent contemplation began to recognize a liturgical depth in the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke of Jesus becoming dazzlingly white. It became a central feast in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, associated in fact with the harvest season. Newly picked grapes were brought to the Church to be blessed on this Feast. This parallels, incidentally, the medieval English blessing of bread from new crops of wheat on what is still called Lammas Day—or “loaf mass” day, August 1, close to the eastern Feast of the Transfiguration. Transfiguration became an official feast in the West in the fifteenth century, and added to the Episcopal Church calendar about 120 years ago.

The tedium of growing grapes, or wheat; attending Mass week in, week out during long stretches of hot weather—perhaps the Christian religion, Christian obedience gets a bit hum-drum when compared to the fun activities of summer travel, swimming pools, backyard grilling and looking at the stars. Is it too much of a stretch to suspect we might be sometimes lulled into something of a summer stupor, within our air-conditioned homes and cars, our gardens yet to bear fruit or roses?

“Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, and when they wakened they saw his glory.” The transfigured glory of Christ wakens us from our summer slumbering. A rose blossoms in glistening white. Imagine what it must have been like for Peter, John and James. The wonder—the holy awe of it all! Moses and Elijah—both having had mountaintop experiences, and both having had experiences with a holy cloud—speaking of Jesus’s departure, that is, of His Passion, Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection. Could there even be words to describe the experience for Peter, John and James? Can we fault Peter for wanting to cling to this moment, to build shelters so that the moment might never end?

We ought not fault him, because despite not knowing the meaning of what he said, God responded with still more glory. A cloud came and overshadowed them—this is a biblical symbol for the presence of the Holy Spirit, overshadowing the three disciples just as Mary was overshadowed at the Annunciation. And entering into the holy cloud, the voice out of the cloud, saying “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” This voice is the Father, speaking to the apostles, and hence to us, like he spoke to Jesus at his Baptism in the River Jordan.

And so this is a fully trinitarian experience—the mountaintop of the mountaintop—and the fulfillment of the voice of the Father is Jesus alone. Jesus is the one we are to listen to. By listening to Him, we will hear the voice of the Law, signified by Moses, and the voice of the prophets, signified by Elijah. Rather than trying to control Jesus, to box him in, we are to listen to him.

Peter, John and James experienced this event, this unspeakable miracle. A biblical miracle is an experience beyond the capacity of language to express its full meaning. The accounts of miracles in Scripture attempt to bring expression to that perceiving in depth. Miracle-language attempts to articulate moments that had within them deep wonder, unspeakable awe and mystery. There is a focusing of God’s activity in a miracle, an intense concentration of the action of God.

And doubtlessly Peter, John and James carried this concentrated experience with them, mostly in silence, or confused wonderment—certainly changed inwardly in the soul like Moses was changed outwardly on the skin of his face. They experienced this miracle, yet still doubted the divinity of Jesus, and at first disbelieved his resurrection. It was only looking back later on this mountain-top event, after the resurrection of Jesus, that they saw not only the depth of the experience but its meaning—that Jesus was both Man and God: a Man who definitively reveals ultimate reality, his manhood fully taken into God. The Transfiguration initiated them into the mysteries of God, but it took time for them to see in this experience its fullest depth, for it to become true prayer.

Saint Peter tells us that we will do well to pay attention, as a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. We reflect on the Transfiguration of Our Lord because it is a lamp shining in darkness. The primary darkness is not the world at large, but our inward souls. May we keep silence, reflecting inwardly on Jesus transfigured in dazzling and glistening white. And may we, as we climb the mountain by our religion, by faith behold the King in his beauty. And may the day continue to dawn, and the morning star continue to rise in our hearts.

Cover image “The Saviour’s Transfiguration”  is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.

Saint Mark, icon by the hand of Monica Thornton

Homily: The Spectacular Awkwardness of James and John

There is, I think, a spectacular awkwardness in the conversation between Jesus and the disciples James and John. They ask, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus says, “What do you want me to do for you?” They say, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” And Jesus replies, “You do not know what you are asking.” Conversation with Jesus—the term for this is “colloquy”—ensues about the Cup, a symbol of sharing in Jesus’ “cup of suffering,” and baptism, immersion into pilgrimage. A little while later, when word of this exchange reaches the other disciples, we are told they were “indignant,” and in another translation, “furious.” A fascinating exchange! One of the challenges sometimes faced by disciples of Jesus of any age, and exemplified in this lesson, is less about the problem in talking to Jesus ourselves in private and asking Him to help us, but rather in the reactions of others when they find out we asked Jesus to help us find that new job, new car, new house. Rather than comfortably asking Jesus for something—which he already knows we want—we worry, “What might others think of this?” and the simplicity of talking to God is impeded.

I described this conversation as having a “spectacular awkwardness” about it. I say this particularly because our Gospel lesson is preceded by three verses we do not hear today, which have Jesus describing His Passion in summary as well as with some detail. In the verse, immediately before our lesson, he says the Son of Man will be mocked, spat upon, scourged, killed and then “after three days he will rise.” And so there is something of a dissonance, to say the least, when that holy narrative of humiliation, torture and death is followed by a demand by James and John to “do for us whatever we ask of you.” And yet, it is often the case that the deep questions we have—those questions that have echoed inwardly for a while, but usually have to be put aside because something more pressing in our life is demanding immediate attention—those questions are sometimes triggered by something we hear, and it may not be the particular words we hear, but rather have to do with the person saying the words—his or her presence, whether it has a calmness that disarms, or an energy that excites, or both; as well as the particular time and place—we are stirred to ask that question we have been meaning to ask for days, weeks, even months or years, but never had the chance. And in this trusting relationship with another person, we just ask it, because it needs to be asked. Some commentators on this Gospel passage immediately side with the other disciples and criticize James and John for their demand and request, calling it “self-centeredness.” Say what you want about that, but I am glad they asked it, and St Mark apparently was, too, because he included it in his narrative!

I would suggest that this request to “sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in glory,” had been echoing inwardly in James and John because they, along with Peter, were witnesses to the Transfiguration of Jesus, which in Mark’s Gospel is told but one chapter earlier than our lesson. Recall that they were brought up to a “high mountain,” the garments of Jesus becoming “glistening, intensely white.” They heard the voice of the Father Almighty speaking out of a cloud which was overshadowing them, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” To attempt to describe what James, John and Peter must have experienced is the task of poets, but we cannot be wholly wrong to suspect they were shocked, overwhelmed, their hearts perhaps emblazoned with the holy fear of God. Howsoever it was for them—and let it be affirmed again that this is a very good meditation for us to make today, putting ourselves in their shoes, reflecting creatively on what it may have been like to actually be there on that mysterious mountain—basic knowledge of humanity shows us it is hardly unreasonable to assume the experience of the Transfiguration of Jesus stretched their understanding of reality, and required time to process. And as part of that processing, at some point James and John would ask questions about just what happened back on the mountain with Moses and Elijah. Remember the Church has historically depicted in icons the Transfiguration with Jesus in the center, Elijah on his right hand and Moses on his left. In the normal course of human thinking, psychology, emotions, and cognition mix together, and out comes the awkward question from James and John to Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one and your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” and we might add, “like we remember Moses and Elijah back on the mountain.”

Whereas the disciples were indignant or furious at this question, Jesus was not. There is no characterization in the text of Jesus’s response, other than his words. And these words put together show Jesus in the role that today we would call spiritual director or ascetical guide. He masterfully responds to their first demand—“we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” with, “What do you want me to do for you?” When they elaborate, he says, “You do not know what you are asking”—not, what a stupid, ridiculous, incompetent question, how dare you ask it!—but rather with the guidance they need: “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” Do we hear the tremendous affirmation in these words given by Jesus to James and John? What glory! And yet he does not hesitate to correct where they do go awry: “but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” All of which further issues in still more guidance and direction by Jesus, now to the Twelve as a whole, about the nature of servant ministry, and it is surely with teaching such as this echoing inwardly in the corporate memory of the Twelve along with the early Church that called them back to the Hebrew Scriptures and passages such as our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah which show Jesus to be the messianic king in the tradition of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses as well as the Suffering Servant figure spake by the Prophets of old. This is another reason why, according to one interpretation of the Transfiguration Icon, Moses and Elijah are depicted. Moses represents the Law, the five books commonly called the Pentateuch; Elijah represents the Prophets, the major writings like Isaiah and minor writings like Hosea. We are invited to reflect, then, on the fact that we cannot properly see neither the humanity nor particularly the divinity of Jesus without the Law or the Prophets. Yes, true prayer requires the whole Catholic Bible, yet even moreso the fullness of salvation history.

Brothers and sisters, let us glory in the spectacular awkwardness of James and John. Let us give thanks to these Saints for the courage to ask their question. Whether it was merely self-centered, or whether it was mystagogical reflection that looked back the Transfiguration, we can be assured and emboldened that whatever desires we have, bring them to Christ. Whatever demands we feel called to make, bring them to Christ. Whatever wishes, hopes, goals we have, bring them to Christ. Make a full oblation to God—and then listen for his response. He knows what we want before we ask—in our Collect two weeks ago: He is always more ready to hear than we to pray, and he gives us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask.

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.