A sermon preached by Canon Joanna Abecassis, Rector, Holy Trinity, Bradford on Avon
The Feast of The Transfiguration has always been one of my absolute favourites, and so it is a great pleasure to be here today. As we have seen expressed in the language of our two readings, it is all about GLORY, about LIGHT – and so… about eternity. With those extremely fortunate disciples Peter, James and John – we have here a precious glimpse of eternal life. We find ourselves in one of those very ‘thin’ places – poised between heaven and earth, if just for a moment. And to be sharing in that experience together here in Salisbury Cathedral this evening seems to be remarkably appropriate and poignant: for here we are in this quite magnificent and ancient house of prayer, which is absolutely about the light and the glory of God, whilst just outside the doors, we find ourselves in a city which is recovering from the shock of the two recent Novichok incidents. The transcendence of heaven rubbing right up alongside the painful murk of 21st century earthly, city life. But this IS life – life in all its fullness - and it transfigures us – transforms us, too. It is about the earthiness of the incarnation – ‘Emmanuel - God with us’. And, as Peter so beautifully wrote in his Letter, with the benefit of hindsight: 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.
This was clearly one of those occasions when ‘the time was right’ for Jesus – and there are of course echoes back to that other remarkable and unexpected moment when Jesus was baptised by John in the Jordan at another remote ‘place apart’, and the voice also came from heaven, proclaiming that this was God’s ‘Son, the beloved’. So, in this case, Jesus took himself off – as was his want - to pray. He needed that peace, that space, that holy place. And it was just so ‘thin’ that he was transfigured before their very eyes. No wonder the disciples couldn’t understand! No wonder they were terrified! It was as if the veil had been lifted… They witnessed that quite fantastic glimpse of eternal life – that quite fantastic glimpse of the holiness of God. A deeply spiritual experience which no words could describe. And, rather wonderfully, this is just what I have found (as a former hospital chaplain) when listening to people who have so nearly died / had ‘near-death experiences’. That sense of wonder / of awe / of transcendence – and of a pure, white light – somehow beckoning – full of love – fill of peace. This is a mystery. This is the stuff of Salisbury Cathedral. This is a taste of heaven. And they were dumb-struck – they ‘kept silent’.
Yet those three disciples – as ever – had their feet firmly rooted on the ground. And I love Peter’s very earthy – typically feet-first – reaction. Just as when he was insisting on washing Jesus’s feet at the Last Supper. He just couldn’t get it! So rather than breathing in the glory and the mystery of the moment, he was (as it were) out with his smart-phone snapping away! “Oh OK, right, Jesus, Moses and Elijah all together – let’s box them in and build them three little huts, one each!” But no! The transcendent and transfigured Christ could live alongside his very earthy disciples just fine – with ‘nowhere to lay his head’. He had a mission to fulfil. Just as the wondrous Salisbury Cathedral with its spire pointing towards the glory of God, can and does and must live alongside the bewilderment and fear of its city. It has a mission to fulfil.
‘Be still, and know that I am God’ had said the Psalmist so many centuries before. And that is surely the challenge for us all? Just as that voice from heaven proclaimed that we should listen to Jesus – so we are called to watch and to wait, to listen, to hold that space, and wait for ‘God’s holiness to dawn’: 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. Now Peter will have written his Letters some decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and after the institution of the sacrament of Holy Communion, which we are about to share. So he will have learned a thing or two by then! And he will have experienced the extraordinary mystery of how the very ordinary stuff of life can be transformed / transfigured by the power of the Holy Spirit enabling Christ to be present for us… I wonder whether that will have helped him – and us – understand Christ’s Transfiguration better?
I leave you with a lovely story concerning St Seraphim of Sarov: a deeply wise Russian Orthodox mystic who lived as a hermit in the forest. A young Russian nobleman, Motolivov, comes to him for spiritual direction (in 1831), and later recorded the event. He listens. But… (and I quote from James Harpur)
The encounter then takes an unexpectedly mystical turn when Motovilov becomes aware that he cannot look Seraphim in the face, because his face is brighter than the sun. Furthermore, Seraphim tells him that he, Motovilov, is also emitting a divine radiance.
It is an unforgettable image: two men, facing each other like mutually reflecting mirrors of light, while the snow falls, adding its own natural light to the scene.
It is as if the Holy Spirit had manifested itself not only within each man, but also, at that moment, within the whole of nature, blanking out the variousness of the world with a vast white silence; as if the distinction between the inner and outer worlds had collapsed, and the resultant state of harmonious being was what might be called the Kingdom of heaven”. Amen.