Like stained glass – thinking about the transfiguration.
A sermon for the Sunday next before Lent – St John’s Adel
Exodus 24: 12-end; 2 Peter 1: 16 – end; Matthew 17: 1-9
Since the New Year, being Rector seems to have consisted largely of taking funerals…and I have a confession to make.
I love taking funerals.
I don’t love the fact that they’re needed, but there’s enormous privilege in celebrating a precious life. Often before the funeral there’s a special time with family, sharing, perhaps for the only time, the whole of the life we’re remembering.
Of course when we’ve just lost someone we tend to remember their best features, but families are usually very honest. With love they recall the person ‘warts and all’: they remember the hard times; the poor choices; the difficult bits of their character.
I read a beautiful description recently of what clergy do in the funeral address – the eulogy. It was described as ‘holding up fragments of a life like stained glass and trusting the divine light will shine through.’
And it does. The address always follows a bible passage. And when we put the whole life together, next to a story of God and his love for us, we find the one shining through the other…we find, perhaps in a way we hadn’t seen before, a person who, despite their faults, showed us something of God.
In our gospel today we heard of another human life held up to the light of God. At the top of a mountain, in a strange experience, the disciples somehow saw God through Jesus. And because Jesus is one with God, it’s as if he is transparent, the light is overwhelming – the disciples seem to look straight into the heart of God. They began to understand that Jesus somehow was also God.
The transfiguration, as it’s called, told them something about Christ, but I think it also teaches something about all of humanity.
At my priesting, someone at Whitkirk gave me this book by Rowan Williams. It looks at Orthodox Christian icons and what they tell us about Jesus.
Icons are stylised images. They’re based on the belief that the divine and the human in Jesus can’t be separated. They seek to show the divine life in Jesus acting on the human nature, shining through it – transfiguring it if you like.
Icons are not just paintings – they’re meant to be gateways to God. We’re not meant just to look and admire – they’re to be used as prayers – as ways of encountering God through the picture.
Icons of today’s story – the transfiguration – have the disciples sprawling on the ground, shielding their eyes. They show Jesus, dazzlingly bright against dark circles that don’t seem to have an end. These represent the eternal life and love of God…life and love that seem to be able to pour into and through Jesus.
Icons of the transfiguration, Williams says, tell us that the eternal life and love of God can somehow dwell in a human life. That the Jesus we meet in the gospels is, in human form, the same Son of God who was with God ‘in the beginning’ and always will be. The disciples are left sprawling because it’s an idea almost too big to handle.
But perhaps those three disciples needed to see Christ transfigured, to see all the glory of God in human form. Because later they are the ones with Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before he died – as he prayed in agony…not something they expect to see God doing.
If they could remember Christ transfigured on the mountain-top, they might realise that God’s life can dwell in every bit of human life including the fear and doubt of that garden. Including even the terror and death of the cross.
The transfiguration then is much more than a reminder that Christ is truly God. It says God can dwell in every part of human life. Which also means, I think, that there is no human life in which God cannot be found.
So I think it means we should expect to find God in other human lives. Christ’s transfiguration says that all human lives can be transfigured – can let the light and love of God shine through them.
There’s a lovely line in one of the prayers I use during evening prayer. It asks God ‘may the people we have met today bring us closer to you.’
When I think back over the day in prayer, I can often see where God has shown or taught me something through the people he’s sent my way. This week though, thinking about the transfiguration…about God choosing to inhabit every bit of human life…I’ve been carrying this prayer around with me.
If I start the day praying ‘may the people I will meet bring me closer to you’, I find myself looking for the place in that person where the divine light shines through. They sort of become icons as I look beyond the surface and find through them a way of encountering God.
Of course I’m not very good at this. Too often I forget and look at people in my light rather than Gods. I look for how they can help me, or I see only what irritates or annoys. But as with many things – practice helps.
And the more I look for God in others, the more I find him. And, I suspect, the more God’s light can shine through my life too.
Perhaps the transfiguration says that if God dwelt in one human life – all human lives are somehow made holy.
So let’s not wait for the next funeral to hold up the lives of those around us and look for the divine light shining through them.