Sermon – Transfiguration Sunday
A few weeks ago, the Divinity School held an event called “Engaging Eliot,” which attempted to look at T.S. Eliot’s poem Four Quartets. I’ve had a sweet spot for Eliot since I studied abroad in London and my quintessentially British literature professor said he could give us the perfect initiation to both London and English literature, and proceeded to read The Wasteland in it’s entirety.
While I hadn’t read the Quartets in a while, looking at the artwork and music that accompanied readings during the event, I was struck once more by Eliot’s struggle with time and boundedness. His search for how to live in the midst of the two great World Wars, and exploring how to live in the present that is framed between a past and future. As he writes:
Time past and time future Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden, The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future. Only through time time is conquered.
We can envision the story of Jesus’ transfiguration that we read today from Luke, where Jesus becomes is divinely transfigured and appears dazzling white, as one of two parallel stories framing the whole season of Lent. Here, a story of Jesus going to a lonely mountain to pray with his three closest friends, and where the friends witness a mystery so great they have no words to describe what is occurring. There, on Good Friday, a story of Jesus again praying alone in the Garden of Gethsemane with his closest friends again unsure of the events unfolding. In both Jesus prays alone, in both the Father is revealed, in both his three best friends shrink in terror.
While these parallel stories shape the season of Lent, the same could be said about the Christian life. In some ways our life us always lived between these two poles, these two moments of prayer and revelation. Here on the mountain, Peter James and John see the veil of human flesh lifted. They are able to behold that behind and within the flesh of Jesus is an unbearable light and glory of divinity. They see flesh and blood soaked with glory and Jesus’ human body penetrated by the radiance of God. They also witness the prophets of the past, Moses and Elijah, refracted through and within the person of Christ. They longer rest in time but in eternity. The disciples, along with Eliot, might say this is the point:
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
But at the other end of Lent the disciples witness the same person of radiance and brightness and glory is made real by accepting the pain of the cross for you and me, for all of humankind. We then recognize that the power of Christ revealed on the mountaintop is exercised not through crushing and controlling, but in a sacrifice of love.
And this is why we as Christians live between these two visions. It is impossible to understand the radiance of the transfiguration unless we recognize God’s power and beauty is entirely focused on sacrificial love, a love that frees us from sin and gives us the ability to also experience this radiance. But we also can’t understand this sacrifice made at the end of Lent, the darkness and the terror of Good Friday, unless we see and remember that sitting in these depths is the glory of God. The freedom and weakness of God, bound and woven together in parallel stories and the one person of Jesus Christ.
If our lives as Christians, like Lent, are framed by these stories, it also shows us the vision of the world we should have. When the world is crushing us, when the violence and injustice and despair is too much for us, we can look into the depths and see how the freedom of God is there in failure and crisis and worry to bring us life and love. And when things are going well, when we are crushing it, we are to think about how our peace and security can be turned over through our giving into love. These stories tell us not just of how glory and sacrifice are blended together in the person of Jesus, but also how we are to understand God’s vision for the church and world. How we are to point to and witness to and live out the woven together vision of glory and sacrifice. For Downton Abbey fans, black armbands and champagne are both part of the Christian story. The mystery of Christ is that the power of God revealed here on the mountaintop will be most manifest at the end of our Lenten journey, when the at the darkest moment of self-loss and sacrifice, the power of God revealed in Jesus bursts out to redeem us.
Eliot recognized this mystery, the uncertain manifestation of past and future revealed in Christ and he also recognized it requires a journey. As he writes:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from…
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
As you prepare for this Lenten journey, I would hope that you can explore how to live between these two stories, to explore the love and calling of Christ, in order that we might know ourselves, and this church, and this place for the first time.
Both of these framing stories show Jesus devoting himself to prayer. As such, I would propose that we do the same over the next 40 days. Allow the revelation and mystery of Christ to wash over you, and let us allow it to influence our community, as we continue this exploration. As Eliot cautiously encourages:
Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.