Sermon preached by Angela Rayner, ordinand at Westcott House
“Whom do you seek?”, “what is transformation?” and “how might we be transformed?”
Today is Quinquagesima Sunday, fifty days before Easter. The Book of Common Prayer gives us this mellifluous word which modern texts have replaced with the utilitarian-sounding “first Sunday before Lent”. Perhaps that says something about our time. The poetic has been replaced by the pragmatic; what is true, for what works; what is beautiful for what sells. But, might this be a liturgical cul-de-sac, a retreat from the frightening world? Calendrical reform has almost outlawed the “gesimas”, the time known as pre-Lent, so why return to them now?
Perhaps because the flattening of “in between times” must be resisted to retain faith’s paradoxes. The readings suggest we might be observing the feast of the transfiguration, but the green frontals demonstrate we observe nothing beyond the weekly resurrection. Dangling precariously between the light of epiphany and the warmth of Spring resurrection, time is created for the examination of consciences. The “gesima” Sundays were referred to as “a Narthex” or porch, slowing our entry into church. The Narthex was a place of penitence, to avoid our crash-landing into the building, or indeed, into Lent. Fasting will leave us with less energy. Prayer and almsgiving require us to empty our diaries and examine our hearts. The “gesimas” call us with Moses, to prepare on the mountain, where the oxygen-depleted air is thinner and our bodies slowed in readiness for worship.
On this occasion, obedient to God, Moses with seventy elders and several others ascended Mount Sinai; the mountain where God had appeared previously in the Burning Bush, and to reveal the covenant. The party had been invited to a meal, to behold God, with whom they eat and drink, and then God called Moses and Joshua further up the mountain. And Moses, like us, is instructed to slow down; “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait…”. Perhaps they’d been expecting to hear from God as per their previous experience, with lightning and thunder. This time, it seems the transfiguration cannot be rushed. It takes as long as it takes, and then a bit longer. Moses, in the knowledge that God will take all the time God needs, instructed the elders to wait for him lower down. Perhaps it’s a preparation for the preparation.
Even once Moses had ascended the mountain, more waiting remained. It is only on the seventh day, upon which work is forbidden, that God appeared in glory in the fiery cloudy pillar. One reason we use incense at the Eucharist is to remind us of the pillar of fire that carried the Israelite people safely through the wilderness, to descend upon us as a thick cloud. Through our senses, we become aware of being lifted into God’s glory, taken to another place, that we might go forth transformed. And, indeed, the people of Israel could see the fire atop the mountain from the ground, which brings us to the first question; “whom do you seek?”
We might begin by seeking God, but the Israelites demonstrate that seeing requires an ongoing work of disciplined attention. There is a form of looking that does not involve really seeing; it might be called tourism. One photographs sites to collect souvenirs, to say that one has “been”. After looting a city, armies sometimes collect items as trophies, sending out the message that their culture has conquered the country whose objects it now owns. Looking upon or displaying such objects is akin to possession, a form of pornographic gaze which objectifies, uses and disposes. It is colonisation; a type of distraction in which people fail to recognise that land, ultimately, belongs to God. Due to the time Moses spent waiting on God in the cloud for a set of DIY flat-pack tabernacle instructions, the Israelites, whether by social media, the opera or their next promotion, had become distracted. They’d sought God and seen God’s glory in the cloud, but like tourists, had failed to be transformed by it.
Moses, by contrast, waited for God to speak, to unfold the plans for the tabernacle; a portable version of Mount Sinai. Moses was delayed in descent revealing a second form of looking, or, rather hearing; one open to being transformed in a manner best exemplified by George Herbert in his poem, The Elixir:
A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy.
His gaze becomes one of adoration and not possession, in which an object piques our curiosity and God looks back. Through dispossession, we are granted knowledge. Not only are our eyes open to knowing another, they are opened to being known by God. When “heav’n is spied”, we cannot help but love so much that our lives are changed. That is what seems to have happened to Moses; his tourism had become pilgrimage; he’d been transformed. But he didn’t return looking any different. No dazzling white clothes for him; just a heart for strengthening his community, “let not your anger burn forth against Your people” Moses later implored God. But there’s no happy ever-after ending, Moses descended from the mountain, arrived home and is back to being the same old Moses-grumpy-pants-prophet. He even had the audacity to smash God’s tablets and get angry with the very people he’d just defended.
With a direct echo of the covenant made upon Mount Sinai, Jesus’ transfiguration also took place on a mountain. It seems straightforward until we wonder why Jesus required it at all. He was already the Messiah, already incarnate of the Virgin Mary. Moses was a regular old prophet in need of redemption, but the Son of God did not need to be redeemed. So, why was Jesus transfigured? First, perhaps, because the man Jesus did not know of his own identity until he had received it from his Father. He, as we, needed to be called by his name. And, second, Jesus was transfigured in front of his friends, giving them the expectation that their lives too would be changed, which brings us to the second question, “what is transformation?”
Neither Moses nor Jesus are unrecognisable upon return from the mountain, but both have been set free to continue the mission of God. They’ve become or been seen as the truest version of themselves. One example of becoming ourselves might be illustrated by Princess Fiona from the film Shrek. Whilst the story implies the Princess awaited rescue from her impenetrable castle and the fierce Dragon, her prowess at Kung Fu meant she could have left at her own volition had she realised her predicament. What she had been awaiting was not liberation by a traditional Prince (she’d turned that down once) but the liberation of friendship into a community of character for the freedom of service. That is what is meant by finding “love’s true form”. For Princess Fiona, for Moses, for Jesus and for us, transformation is not about gaining access to the world’s castles, but entering more deeply into the world’s swamps. I say this, not in a hackneyed attempt to promote the virtues of romantic love, but to observe that these characters do not appear in their truest form until called and known and loved by God in front of their communities. Their stories, our story, is founded on a message that makes the day dawn and the morning star rise in our hearts. It’s a friendship which wrecks our isolationist attempts at building individual swamps. So, when we glimpse fire and smell incense, will we, like Moses, draw close to the God of Israel? Or will we take selfies at Mount Sinai and begin to construct the golden calf?
Assuming the former, how might we be transformed? The poet Mary Oliver suggests “attention is the beginning of devotion”; it’s not possible to rush transformation. On this Sunday, as last, as next, we gather to meet God in the Eucharist. And as we eat the divine food, we become more ourselves. It’s not just about attendance in the form of showing up; we cannot compel God to transform us, but about attending to God, enabled again to turn away from sin and towards the gospel. So, like Moses ascending the mountain, we are pulled into the greatest mystery, the means by which we come to taste God, to touch God, to know God and to love God. The Eucharist is what makes it impossible to return alone to the swamp. For in it, slowly, against our best attempts at self-destruction, we are made into a community of the baptised, one that is prior to marriage or kinship or blood ties, bursting former bonds asunder. So, let us eat, and be transformed.