The Sunday next before Lent, 23 February 2020
Preacher: Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
The Transfiguration is the title of the story in today’s gospel. Transfiguration happens when you see a place or a person, that you may know well, in a new light – more wonderful; more clear. That’s how it was for some among the eleven thousand people who came to this place for Sarum Lights last week. I talked to one of our stewards about the conversations he had had: ‘gently transformed’ was a phrase that seemed to fit how some people felt.
But now, some other places of worship that get even bigger crowds though the tickets cost vastly more. The English Premier League has at last followed the rest of European football and had a winter break, just ended. Clubs used this time out in different ways. Some had warm weather training – Arsenal went to Dubai, Wolverhampton Wanderers to Marbella – though Eddie Howe, manager of nearly local AFC Bournemouth, gave his players time off at home: a chance, he said, for some rest ‘and an opportunity to clear their heads for the fight that remains’.
In the gospel reading, Jesus takes three of his key players away not to warmer weather but to higher altitude. We aren't told why, but we suspect a similar reason: they are going to Jerusalem, where Jesus has told them he will have a showdown with the people of power, and suffer for it. Peter (the disciples’ hapless team captain) has already shown he is appalled at this, and Jesus has done some coaching with him and his teammates about how his tactics are the right ones. It seems, however, that to clear their heads properly for the fight that awaits, they need to see for themselves. So Jesus takes them up the mountain. What they see there we shall come to shortly, but for now let’s stay with the business of time out.
We know how it can help to interrupt the routine of life with a change of pace and even a change of air. Respite care can do this if you have a long-term condition, or if you care for someone who has. Schools are just coming to the end of half term, students have the optimistically-named reading week, and many workers – by no means all – have annual leave. Some people think they are too important to have time out, or that it is for wimps – and any athlete will tell you what nonsense that is.
This week brings Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent: a period of time out for the heart, time to clear our heads for God; six weeks leading up to Easter with a double focus on Jesus, recalling how he took six weeks’ time out in the wilderness to prepare for the start of his ministry, and also walking with him on his journey to Jerusalem and the final conflict that awaits.
There are different ways to do Lent. It can be a time to get a better grasp of the essentials of Christian faith or to broaden your faith horizon, or a time to go deeper into God by clearing space to pray. It can be a time to remember the claims that others have upon us and to rediscover the joy of generosity.
Happily, all these can be yours. You can come to a Lent Lunch (if you are free during the day) – a choice of superb soups and the chance to support the Sudan Medical Link. And this year we also have LiveLent, the Church of England’s daily prayers and reflections – don’t go home without a copy – which are inspired by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book, Saying Yes to Life by Ruth Valerio. The book is commended by Archbishop Justin in the foreword and (still more wonderfully) by Canon Ed in last week’s notices. (Ruth, by the way, will be one of our panellists in this year’s Salisbury Conversations.) You can read it on your own, or join a study group.
Valerio takes us through the six Days of Creation – evoked during Sarum Lights by the display in the north transept – to explore the fundamentals of belief in our Creator and invite our response to God in relation to something that is affecting our lives more and more, the breakdown of our climate. She does it with invitations to think, to pray and to act that are more about joy and hope than about fear.
Going deeper into God, and deeper into the world which God gives us to care for. It is that dual invitation that Peter, James and John experience on the hilltop. They have a vision, in which they see their familiar friend Jesus in a new light – more wonderful, more clear – but, more than that, they see him joined by two long-departed figures: Moses, who brought them to birth as a nation; Elijah, whose return will herald the coming of their Messiah; Moses, who received the ten commandments, the bedrock of a just society; Elijah, who faced up to the arrogance of power. Their head-clearing time out shows them that if they keep following Jesus, he will lead them to the heart of God, and into the heart of a needy, hurting world.
Likewise, what God waits to show us this Lent will take us deeper into the scriptures and into prayer, and give us a clearer sense of our place and purpose on this planet.
We end on a light note. We have just had five nights of light, and it’s light that shows the disciples on the mountain who Jesus really is. In ‘Let there be light’, her chapter on the First Day of Creation, Ruth Valerio introduces us to the remarkable NASA film Earth at Night, ‘the black marble’ that is never really dark, as ‘wildfires and volcanoes rage…oil and gas wells burn like candles [and] auroras dance across polar skies.’
And then there are the city lights. On earth, says the narrator, ‘The night is electric.’
Valerio rejoices in the wonder of electricity, the light it brings for children she knows in Nepal to get their homework done, and the power it gives their mother to get their grain milled in minutes rather than hours.
She describes the harm we do in some of the ways we generate electricity, and muses that God must be puzzled by the way we persist in the difficult and dangerous business of getting fossil fuels out of the ground while the sun stares us in the face and the wind blows around us. She introduces us to a Methodist church in the Midlands with its ground source heat pump, and to a bishop in Swaziland who is encouraging her flock to mark spiritual events – baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals – by planting trees.
But she reminds us: God saw that the light was good.
Valerio ends this chapter of her gently transforming book, and we end, with this prayer from the USA on the transfiguring wonder of light.
To the one who surges into the fissures that cannot be accessed,
To the one who floods into the crevices that cannot be reached,
To the one whose presence exposes, clarifies, restores, and cultivates,
We bask. We thrive. We harbor no secrets.
You are the first ingredient for life.
The universe, not to mention our hearts, would wither away
without you, Light of the world.