Monday, 7 August 2023

Transfiguration: identity fulfillment

Daniel 7.9,10,13,14

Psalm 97

2 Peter 1.16-19

Luke 9.28-36




I wonder if you have seen either of the blockbuster films of the summer?


Yes, I am talking about Barbie and Oppenheimer!


I have to confess that I haven’t seen either film, and to be honest, whilst I am interested in them I am unlikely to.


So why refer to them today when we celebrate the Transfiguration of the Lord? After all this is a sermon not a film review.


The Transfiguration of Lord is the liturgical celebration of the event recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and, as we heard today, of Luke as well as a first-hand witness statement from St Peter, which made for our second reading today.


That event, known as the Transfiguration, is a wonderful and mystical theophany, a word meaning God-showing; so how could it possibly relate to the showing of two Hollywood films?


Well there is something of a strange connection between the two films and today’s celebration of the Transfiguration of the Lord, and at the same time that connection helps us see some distinct contrasts.


These connections and contrasts hinge on change and light.


The Transfiguration of the Lord focuses on the change of his appearance:  ‘And while Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.’ (Luke 9.29).


The Barbie concept, I’m told, is that Barbie is essentially a doll who can be anything she wants to be and can change appearance and identity: the film amplifies that message by making the doll, Barbie, into a real woman. That’s about change but not about Transfiguration.


So what of light?


In the Transfiguration of the Lord there is a dazzling light: this is the uncreated light of God who said in the beginning, ‘let there be light’. (Genesis 1.3)


Today is the anniversary of the first detonation of Oppenheimer’s uranium bomb. It was the 6th August 1945 when the bomb - with about thirteen kilotons of force - was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, home to over 280,000 men, women and children.


An atomic explosion is first marked by light, before the mushroom cloud. Thirteen kilotons of force is very abstract, but when we learn that the light of the bomb is comparable to the light of the sun, it brings it home.


The light of the atomic bomb is destructive, devastating and deadly.


Oppenheimer came to regret his involvement but his work, and the work of the Manhattan Project, was only ever going to end in the darkest light imaginable.


What a contrast to the light of God. Yes, God said in the beginning, ‘let there be light.’ But read on… ‘And God saw that the light was good’.


St John tells us, ‘In Christ was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.’ (John 1.4,5)


This is the light ‘which gives light to everyone.’ (John 1.9).


This is the light and the glory revealed on the Holy Mountain of the Transfiguration.


The light of Christ shines in the darkness, but does not bring darkness, like Oppenheimer’s ‘deadly toy’.


The darkness does not and cannot ultimately overcome the light of Jesus Christ.


As the psalm puts it so beautifully, ‘with thee, O Lord, is the well of life, and in thy light, do we see light’. (Psalm 36.9)


It seems almost trivial now to return to Barbie, but there is something important going on here too.


It is in how we conceive of what it means to be human.


Barbie can be who she wants to be.


Bear in mind that Barbie is a doll and not a person, but the film and the messaging around it gives a particular understanding of what it means to be human, an anthropology that is not what we find in the gospels or what is revealed in the Transfiguration of the Lord.


Barbie does give a laudable message to women and girls that they should not be inhibited or restrained by what they imagine to be obstacles to living a fulfilled life, imposed by society or some men.


But there is another message underlying the Barbie view of being human that is more unsettling.


It suggests that the human body is like a blank slate, or moulded plastic, onto which we write our own story, ideals and aspirations, as if we are androgynous dolls who change who we are by changing our outward appearance.


This chimes with the tendency more and more to see human identity split between body and spirit.


This is known as dualism – the idea that there are two distinct or warring parts of being human: body against spirit.


This idea has been around for a long time, and something that Christianity resisted and resists.


That’s because the Christian vision of the human person is a holistic, holy, one, where body and soul are one, both in this life and in the resurrection: that’s why it matters that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, his spirit wasn’t ‘released’ from his body.


For the early Christians the struggle was against Manichaeism.


This is a form of dualism that says that there is a struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness.


For Manichees salvation is being lifted out of this murky world and for them it was abhorrent to think that God would love the world at all, and all the more that he might take on human flesh and die, in order to do so.


We see this in a new form today when we hear people say ‘I am in the wrong body’ or when they despise the biology of their body and seek to change it.


This is a hugely contentious issue of our times: I say this not to condemn, but to pity.


Not to be at home in one’s body, or to despise one’s own body - to go as far as physically changing it because of not being comfortable with who we are - must be a hard thing to bear.


Christians believe that God chose to make a home in the human body, in the person of Jesus Christ, born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and who through the Holy Spirt dwells with us now: God is at home in us, as he was at first at home in the womb of Mary.


We believe that the body, as God gives it, is a gift and to be cherished and honoured as a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6.19).


So what then of the Transfiguration?


What does the Transfiguration say of who Jesus Christ is and who we are called to be?


The Transfiguration of the Lord shows a human body at its most alive.


The Transfiguration is a not an identity change but an identity fulfilment.


Jesus Christ is truly God; he is Son of God. Jesus Christ is truly human; he is Son of Mary.


Out of the human body shines divine light.


Your body, my body, the male body, the female body, is most itself when shining with Divine Light.


We see in the Transfiguration of the Lord that the human body is at its most fulfilled when subsumed with Divine Light, a light that illuminates who we are and does not destroy us.


At the Eucharist we come to be transfigured, transformed, as we stretch out our hands to receive into our bodies the very Body of Christ.


In so doing we are drawn to the Holy Mountain shining out to the glory of God the Father, the one who says of Jesus Christ, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him’.









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