The Sunday before Lent

“They were terrified when they entered the cloud.”

Sermon preached by the Revd Dr Zachary Guiliano

There are times in the year when we can stop and survey what’s coming ahead and what’s gone before, as if we are standing atop a high mountain, with a whole landscape stretching out in every direction.

This is one of those moments: the Sunday before Lent. Behind us is Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany: the celebration of our Lord’s birth in Bethlehem and his childhood in Nazareth, the revelation of his character to all the peoples of the earth, symbolized in the coming of the Magi. Behind us too are specific episodes in his ministry, which we have reflected on: his changing of water into wine, his preaching in the synagogues and among the people. Ahead of us lies Lent, Holy Week, Easter: Christ’s temptations, his passion, his resurrection.

In some sense, we are like those early apostles, Peter, James, and John, when they climbed up, up with Jesus into the heights, to be with him in prayer. As we read today the story of Christ’s transfiguration in Luke’s Gospel, we should consider its place in that Gospel and in the experience of the disciples.

At this point, they had come to know Jesus. He had called them from their various professions and ways of life to be with him. They had heard his teaching; they had seen him work signs and miracles; they had even entered his ministry, as he sent them out “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.”

The disciples were drawing closer to him each day. And Jesus responded to this intimacy in a particular way. He headed out with them into a lonely place, into the wilderness, to pray.

We are told in Luke’s Gospel that immediately before his transfiguration, he imparted to them these words:

‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’ Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.’

This is what intimacy with Jesus looks like: not just receiving his call, or hearing him teach, or even seeing his signs and beginning to proclaim with him the Kingdom of God. Intimacy with Jesus, the Son of God, means praying with him, knowing about and drawing near to his temptation and sufferings, and following him in the way of the cross.

This is where the whole Gospel of Luke heads from chapter 9 onwards: to Jerusalem, to death. This is where we headed in a few days, as Lent begins.

I can just imagine the disciples’ breath catching at this stage, and many thoughts filling their minds, as their hearts raced. Suffering, temptation, the humiliation of the cross? “Is this what we signed up for?”

Does our breath not catch, and our hearts not race, we contemplate the same thing?

Perhaps the disciples needed reassurance, something to firm their resolve just as we do. And so it seems no accident that the transfiguration occurs after this announcement.

Now about eight days after these sayings, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

These three apostles see Jesus’ glory, “the glory of the only Son of the Father,” the glory of the world’s true light, revealed on a high mountain. They witness Jesus speaking to two great prophets of old. They are lost in a cloud, and they hear a voice: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

In one sense, this was terror upon terror, confusion upon confusion. Told at one moment that their Master and Teacher would die on a cross, and that they should follow him, they are now granted a vision of far more reality than they can bear.

They are “lost in a cloud,” when they join Jesus in prayer on the mountain. But it is a luminous cloud. Have you ever been lost in this way?

I’m sure you’ve been caught out some time in the fog. This is Cambridge, after all. Perhaps on your walk or cycle home, or in a car, you were surrounded by thick, almost tangible darkness, a mist rising from the river. Even when you know the place where you are, and the way you are going, it can be like entering another strange world of “waking dreams.” This is the fog of the lowlands, as the ancient East Anglian fens reassert themselves amid Cambridge’s “wedding-cake pinnacles” and “postcard castles” (Rowan Williams, “Townscape”)

But there is another kind of cloud you can get lost in.

Several years ago, I was visiting the monastery of St Benedict in the mountains above Cassino, Italy. It is an extraordinarily beautiful place in the springtime; you can see for miles around. I was there for my doctoral research, but it was a spiritual pilgrimage as well to see the place where St Benedict walked and prayed, worked and taught.

As I came out of the monastery doors one sunny day, the wind blew gently and a bright cloud, suffused with the light of the sun, slowly rolled up the mountainside and enveloped the whole place. It was like being covered in liquid light, another world of glory, just for a moment.

I was “lost in a cloud.” It was one of the most beautiful things that has ever happened to me. I knew exactly where and who I was, and I knew what God was telling me. It has fixed the memory of Monte Cassino deep in my heart.

The cloud that the disciples entered was on one level terrifying; we cannot ignore that. But it was also one that revealed to them again the person whom they were following.

Jesus, foretold by the law and prophets;

Jesus, their great teacher and master;

Jesus, God’s Son, God’s chosen;

Jesus, heading to the cross.

“Listen to him,” they hear.

As we too stand atop this mountain, this vantage point in the Church’s year, we are afforded this same vision and invitation. We may ascend the great heights with Jesus. We may be with him, drawing near in prayer to his transfiguration, where:

For that one moment, in and out of time,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.

 

There were no angels full of eyes and wings,
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face. (Malcolm Guite, “Transfiguration”)

We cannot stay here. We will have to descend and head with Jesus toward Jerusalem and death, as we move into Lent.

As we do so, can we remember what we have seen and heed the voice from the cloud? “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

Will we listen to him, as he walks to the cross?

Will we listen to him, as he calls us to follow him there?

Will we listen, and let his words and the vision we’ve received shape our hearts and lives?

If we do, we may risk everything: garnering for a time some confusion, questioning, and struggle, some fear. But we will not find ourselves alone; we will find Jesus there, in all his love and promises. We will be with him then, not only at the cross, but in the Garden of Easter, in resurrection and in the coming kingdom of heaven.