Sunday 23 February 2020
The Sunday next before Lent – Choral Evensong
Preacher: The Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
We’ll be talking about Sarum Lights for a long time to come. Each of us who participated in it will have our own memories of an extraordinary week. I won’t forget what I’ve heard described as the football match effect: that of seeing hundreds of people, literally hundreds, converging on the Cathedral for a common purpose. I won’t forget the expressions I saw on people’s face or the comments I heard them make. I will treasure particularly the little boy who walked away from the Cathedral saying excitedly “Dad, I want projections in my bedroom”. And I won’t forget the fantastic spirit that prevailed among our staff and volunteers night after night, often in damp and cold conditions.
And after a week of Sarum Lights there could be no better Biblical texts for us to read than those that tell of or respond to the Transfiguration of our Lord upon the mountain top. We heard St Matthew’s account of it this morning, and we have heard his account of what happens immediately after it this afternoon. No better Biblical texts? At Sarum Lights we saw the Cathedral bathed in light, and we saw it differently. At the Transfiguration Peter, James and John see their Lord bathed in light, and they see him differently. It’s an easy comparison for a preacher to make, but it cannot be pressed too far, for there are profound differences between what happened here last week, and what happened on the mountain top.
At Sarum Lights the Cathedral became a canvas onto which light was projected from another source. At the Transfiguration, Matthew insists, our Lord’s face shines like the sun. When the sun shines light is not projected onto it from another source. The sun creates its own light and its own heat. At the Transfiguration the Lord’s own light pours out of him, the light that is the light of God’s own presence. It makes his face shine and it makes his garments gleam. He is not a canvas: he is the light.
At Sarum Lights the artist made wonderfully creative use of the building onto which his work was projected. I loved a moment at the west front when an image of our Lord in glory rose up the building, pausing at a particular point where his open palms rested on two small round windows. They looked for all the world like his open wounds. The artist had given the building a purpose that its builders could never have intended or envisaged. They made windows, not wounds. But the light of the Transfiguration does not make our Lord out to be other than he is. It’s when he’s radiating heavenly light that the voice speaks and acclaims him as the chosen one, the one to whom the disciples are to listen. They see him differently, but they see him as he really is. This is their Lord, and ours.
There’s an apparent similarity, too. Sarum Lights has ended. The projectors have gone, and the chairs are back. We’ll no doubt talk about doing it again; we’ll hope that many of our visitors will return; but as part of the 2020 celebrations it’s over. The Transfiguration similarly comes to an end. The light fades, and our Lord and the three disciples descend from the mountain to the daily reality of questions needing answers and problems needing resolution. But here’s another profound difference: while we’ve been busy sharing our experience of Sarum Lights on social media the disciples are told: “Tell no one…until after the Son of Man has been raised”. The light – the glory – will return. The Son of Man will be betrayed and killed, but he will be raised. The glory of his resurrection; the glory of his ascension: these will never fade. The Transfiguration is but a foretaste of what is to come.
Which is why we read it today, before we descend into the discipline of Lent. It’s to encourage us, and it’s to remind us of the purpose of that discipline, whatever form it takes. The divine light within each one of us; the divine creative purpose for each one of us; the divinely-appointed future of each one of us. The Archbishops have asked us to do something this Lent that allows God’s creation to do three things: to shine a little more brightly; to regain the beauty with which it was first endowed; and to show us a future that the climate crisis threatens. As you receive Wednesday’s ashes, commit yourselves to allowing the light of Christ to shine within you, revealing you as God has long imagined you, destined for glory unceasing and light unfading. Amen