Saturday, February 13, 2010
Last Sunday of Epiphany
Transfiguration Sermon preached by
The Rev. Canon Charles LaFond
February 11, 2010
The Church of the Good Shepherd, Nashua, NH
© 2010, Concord, New Hampshire. Use in whole or in part by permission only.
Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]
About eight days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ of God, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"--not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
Transfiguration Sunday is the last Sunday before Lent and is the moment when the soundtrack of the gospels turns from major chords to minor chords. The music which could be orchestrated for the soundtrack of the gospel shifts here from something one might expect in Walt Disney – virgin births, angels, lots of wine at weddings, lots of fish and bread in grassy meadows, animated squirrels on Jesus’ shoulder and a faun nibbling grass next to his feet.
There is, here, today, a shift to something one might expect in a scary movie – that moment when the guy hears something in the basement, opens the basement door (while we all scream “no. don’t go down there!” in our minds). He then reaches into the darkness as we cover our mouths with our hands and unconsciously move our knees together. He flick s on the light but, of course, the bulb happens to be burned out…so he descends the basement stairs into the horrors of goblins and darkness which await.
This gospel has very similar themes of light and darkness. Here we can see fluffy clouds on a blue night sky pushed back by the light of the transfiguration of Christ. And beneath him, in the basement of the painting by Raphael is the chaos at the base of Mount Nebo, eight thousand feet down in the town to which they will go in the next scene there is darkness and chaos.
When Raphael painted this painting you have before you in 1516, he was on his way to death, in part, by exhaustion. The artist was so famous and so sought after that he literally has villas and churches and cathedrals and popes and cardinals all with orders for paintings waiting to be filled. The artist was in his own kind of chaos and he let it come through in this painting. What marks most renaissance paintings is something called “chiaroscuro” which in Italian means “LIGHT-DARK” and was a common technique in painting themes of joy and sadness or good and evil or right and wrong.
Here, in this paining, Jesus is almost shaping his floating body in the form of the cross to which he will soon be nailed. He is lit by the conversation of Elijah and Moses – the two great figures of Israel’s’ past - whose conversation was about Jesus’ “departure” says our gospel, but the original word would have been “his exodus.” The path way which will lead from this moment to the cross and to the resurrection. It is the conversation of Moses and Elijah which lights Jesus like the element of a light bulb between two electrodes. It is the pain and suffering Jesus will go through which is the light and the glory of the transfiguration. So the happy light and the sad darkness is not what the artist is doing here. It must be something else.
And I wonder if there is a clue in the arms. If I meditate on this image for a while like one would use an icon, what seems to hit me are the arms! There are arms everywhere! Jesus’ arms are up in the same position that a priest uses to bless the Eucharist and on the way to the out-stretched arms of a crucifixion. The lack of arms waving on the two ghosts is also reflected in their grayness – as if they are body-less voices or memories or floating worries and fears and sign-posts. The arms of the sleeping Peter, James and John are all touching their faces, protecting, shielding? And the arms of the people below are a mass of chaos – flying in every direction – this way and that way. And the boy who is possessed by some spirit. His eyes are huge ands his arms simultaneously reach to Christ with a hand shaped in blessing and the other hand open and reaching to hell.
Jesus of the Transfiguration is Jesus who saves. No longer are we wondering if this is some pre-menopausal Santa Clause! No longer is Jesus just a nice man who can do cool tricks. No longer is Jesus a self-help coach or a good-luck charm we turn to when things go bad or a thing on a chain around our necks which is a sign to the world that we have the “goes to church” box checked on Santa’s “nice list.”
With the transfiguration, things shift – the music, the light, the tone, the colors and the body language. This moment is the wound of knowledge – that thing one all-of-a-sudden-knows that one can never not know – never un-know. The transfiguration is the sing on the path of existence that says “suffering, death, salvation and glory – this way.”
Moses and Elijah were figures of Israel’s exodus from the slavery of Egypt to the Promised Land. Jesus lights up between them as the new exodus – the new freedom from the slavery of fear, the slavery of chaos, the slavery of our terrible choices, the slavery of global wealth and global poverty, the slavery of needing a savior.
For the writers of Luke’s gospel, Jesus is not the savior coming down the mountain to heal the boy in the midst of the incompetence of the disciples. Jesus is the Savior of the whole world, God coming down the mountain of the cosmos to be with us in a world of people which, at times, seem well beyond saving.
The transfigured Christ, like the resurrected Christ, demands that our Walt Disney view of Jesus shift. The transfigured Christ demands that the chaos of flailing arms calm into arms raised to Christ the way Christ’s arms are raised in this paining. The Transfiguration demands that whatever domesticated doily the church has made Jesus into be returned to the physical strength and generativity of this painting’s savior with life-bearing female hips.
The transfiguration demands something Americans and especially Anglicans are not very good at. The transfiguration demands adoration. Not gentle nods of pious recognition. Not sanctimonious handouts to the poor. Not 90 minutes a week on a Sunday. But radical, counter-cultural, face on the floor, arms to the heavens adoration.
This moment in the gospel opens Lent in order to shock us out of our arm-flailing chaos and into making a Holy Lent – not by what we give up but by what we choose to adore – by a shift of focus.
What do we adore? Is it our standard of living? Our intellect? Our savings? Our degrees? Our furnishings? Our physical prowess? Our movie stars? Our tennis stars?
This Gospel is inviting us to re-focus our adoring gaze away from our mirrors and televisions and into the glory of God in Christ.
It is true what doctors say.
Physically, we are what we eat.
But it is also true what the gospel says.
Spiritually, we are what we adore.