Sunday, 6 August 2017

Transfiguration: shine as lights in the world

First preached as a sermon at the Cathedral Eucharist, Guildford Cathedral, on the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, Sunday 6th August 2017

Daniel 7.9-19, 13-14; 2 Peter 1.16-19; Luke 9.28b-36

‘You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place,
until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts’ (2 Peter 1.19b)

In nomine Patris…

Prior to his death recently, my spiritual director and confessor, Bishop Geoffrey Rowell was sitting for a portrait. This is because as a former University chaplain many of his former students and friends clubbed together and prevailed upon him to have this done.

Not long before his death I was with him, as he sat in his favourite chair, and we talked. We talked about mortality - he was dying, but at the time I didn’t know how imminent it was – and we talked about light.

Bishop Geoffrey described the method of the portrait painter, who whilst not a man of faith, was intrigued by light and what light exposes and what it conceals. We talked about one of the major theological influences in Geoffrey’s life, Archbishop Michael Ramsey, who wrote a good deal about light, glory and transfiguration.

For his funeral a prayer card had been produced on one side an icon and on the other the finished portrait that had been completed just in time. It was extremely moving for me to see.
Bishop Geoffrey Rowell
by Alexander Debenham, 2017

The portrait, which appeared in many of his obituaries, shows Geoffrey in his episcopal robes sitting in that favourite chair. The portrait shows a curious mixture of the domestic – his favourite chair – and the ecclesiastical - his white and gold cope and stole.

Geoffrey’s gaze looks out beyond the viewer of the picture, as if he is looking towards something beyond this world even, to something deeply captivating. This isn’t the look of someone who is not paying attention to the person in front of him (a besetting sin of many Bishops) rather it is a portrait of a man looking into the uncreated light of God: he can see, to use the title of one of his books, The Vision Glorious.

The Vision Glorious is what lies beyond us, but also is close at hand: ‘you will do well’, writes St Peter, ‘to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts’.

Geoffrey’s gaze is the gaze of the Christian (his mitre is visible but in the shadows of the portrait). It is as if he is looking beyond to the vision of glory that, a vision which we believe he sees now, in all its fullness; a vision glorious of what we may all see in this earthbound life and existence of ours.

In the portrait light gently washes across Geoffrey’s face, as if spilling out from the glory he beholds, something like the look on Moses’ face after he had beheld God’s glory in the Tent of meeting described in Exodus.

The light of Jesus Christ is not reflected light, but is light seeping out from his divinity: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life’ (John 8.12). The Christian bathes in that light.

On a rather more prosaic level, I spent some time last week working with the lighting consultants for the cathedral and discussing what lighting is needed when and where with our new lighting system.

We covered the sort of issues Bishop Geoffrey had touched with his portrait painter: the way light can be used to draw out certain features; how light and shadow as both necessary in order to give tone and texture to a portrait or a building. We talked about how over lighting deprives a portrait or a building of its character and the nuances of the subject: light is not well used when it bleaches out the subtle details of the subject. Light can be used to pick out and enhance features.

The Transfiguration of the Lord bathes Jesus in light. But this is not a lighting scheme for a building or to pick out the delicacies of a human subject.
 The Transfiguration by Alexander Ainetdinov

Rather it is a declaration of divinity. This divinity shines out through humanity, the human Jesus Christ, who is divine, at one with the Father.

The Letter of James tells us, ‘all gifts come from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change’ (James 1.17). The light that is seen emanating from Christ is the uncreated light of God. Gregory of Nazianzus teaches that if we imagine the sun to be bright, and it is – don’t look at it – then the uncreated light of God is beyond brightness.

The call of a Christian is to be attentive to the resplendent light of Christ as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts. Christianity is in many ways a religion of light, light refracted into a dark world, but a light upon which God declares, ‘Let there be light!’

Baptism is the moment when we see the Light of Christ first rises our hearts: it connects us with the creative purposes of God,’ ‘let there be light in this child of mine’. Our own baptism, when we are washed clean in water, connects us to the Baptism of the Lord and to his Transfiguration: ‘this is my Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!’
Shine as a light
in the world
to the glory
of God the Father

Baptism begins the life of paying attention to Christ: it is about bathing in the glory that comes from him; about gazing upon his Divine Face which illumines our faces; it is about being open to the search light of his wisdom and truth; knowing him as the Beloved Son of the Father; it is about being lit up for life.

As St John puts it in his gospel, ‘What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ (John 1.4, 5). This is Jesus; this is Transfiguration.

The Eucharist draws us into the darkness and shadows of being human and shines the light of Christ into our lives; it takes us to the darkness, ‘in the same night that he was betrayed’ and to the lynching of the cross, when, in the middle of the day, darkness fell over the whole land (Matthew 27.45) and it takes to the glory and splendour of Resurrection.

What this means for us day by day is that we open our eyes to Christ in the world and see what God is up to, the life in which we participate and seek to shine out too: as we’re commissioned at baptism, ‘shine as lights in the world to the glory of God the Father’.

‘You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place,
until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts’ (2 Peter 1.19b)

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