All of us, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. AMEN.
The final Sunday of Epiphany ends with the sight of the Transfiguration. “While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.’” The secret is out and known; everyone, one way or another, had been shown who Jesus is. From his baptism in the Jordan, to the wedding at Cana, and throughout the various scenes of recognition, it became clear to many people that Jesus was more than the carpenter’s son, more than an itinerant preacher, and more than just beloved of G*d. The baptism and this scene both include G*d’s speaking to Jesus. “This is my Son, my beloved. This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”
These voiced comments unite these accounts. Each appearance that Jesus made, made manifest to some group or groups who he was. One or more of the people around Jesus was challenged to consider the mystery that someone they knew, listened to, traveled with, ate with, joked around with, and more, was someone beyond their experience and they were amazed and surely mystified and frightened. The lectionary setters grouped these accounts to traverse the time from Christmas to the preparation time before Easter. They needed a flexible number of weeks, because Easter is determined not by counting weeks after Christmas, but by a given spring moon. There are several stories and the number of them can vary to fit the number of weeks needed to reach Ash Wednesday for Easter to occur on its required date. More importantly Christmas is the story and theology of the Incarnation, and Lent is a preparation for Easter, the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, leading to the Ascension and then Pentecost: all those occasions outlining the major events in the life and resurrection of Jesus. There needed, though, to be some time, with an account of Jesus’s living and actions, to get from the Incarnation to being recognized as Messiah, hope of people, and the Son of the Living G*d. The idea of incarnation doesn’t readily lead to the reality of Easter, without some experience of his life in action, deeds, thinking, and both in living out a life as the incarnation of G*d and also, in so living that life, that he was recognizable as that incarnation. Without seeing the way the incarnation looked in life, Pilate’s fear and hostility wouldn’t make sense, nor the great hopes, the disappointment of them, and the joy arriving after the crucifixion.
Part of the liturgical tradition of Last Epiphany is to say and sing as many Alleluias as possible, but given the weather, and the people who aren’t here this morning, we won’t be able to hear or sing all those we’d planned. In some parishes with children and Sunday schools,the children write out all the Alleluias on strips of paper, as though clipping them physically from the liturgy. They put them in a box andsomehow tuck them away out of sight and sound. Then on Easter morning the box is brought back, the Alleluias taken out of the box, and are sung and said with renewed joy. This effort helps make visible the change of season in more than just text. As fat, in theory, is removed from cooking on Mardi Gras, so too are Alleluias removed from the liturgies of Lent on last Epiphany. The idea of physically showing their removal, is like writing out one’s sins and then burning them in the cauldron of the new fire to begin the Easter Vigil. We don’t do much of this sort of physical demonstrating what we’re intending, thinking and doing liturgically in our words of readings, hymns, and prayers, but I can imagine how vivid they would make these liturgicl changes.
In the useful collection of readings through the Christian year, called The Time of the Spirit, its editors observe that the Orthodox Church calls the Sunday before Lent the “Sunday of Forgiveness,” writing, “Before renewing our relationship with Christ through the Lenten fast, we renew our relationship with each other by asking and giving forgiveness, for a fast without mutual love would be the fast of demons.” They quote Mother Maria (Skobtsova) an Orthodox nun in Paris, who lived from 1891-1945, and died in the gas chambers in Ravensbruck. She wrote, “However hard I try, I find it impossible to construct anything greater than the three words, ‘Love one another’ — only to the end, and without exceptions: and then all is justified and life is illumined, whereas otherwise it is an abomination and a burden.”
For us here and now, it is a thought well worth considering. I see this as a useful first step or learning maneuver. Rather than starting to approach Jesus in his glory and holiness, instead we begin by practicing approaching our neighbors, friends, and those with whom we struggle. Using “Love one another” almost as a mantra or manual for forgiving we consider our relationships with those around us to renew and refresh them. We are to ask for and to give forgiveness. That, of course, takes considering, noticing, and naming where we’ve missed the mark with the many people to whom we’re connected in great and small ways. “For a fast without mutual love would be a fast of demons.” Bringing demons to our world, rather than their only being on the Sunday where Jesus is tempted by demons, makes us both more sympathetic to his struggle, and to see our own failures of mutual love as more real, problematic, and sinister. That recognition helps press us to work at mutual love.
Last Epiphany has us look at those “mountain top” experiences, both of Moses and Jesus. In each case, they go up and are aware of looking around and down, with a big view and wide perspective. Moses’ experience left his face shining from the pure light of the Holy One singeing his face. Similarly Jesus’s companions saw his face become radiant as he prayed on the top of the mountain. Both leaders climbed up with followers and companions. They looked around and down, and took time to absorb what they could see from there. They experienced a closeness with G*d and must have been more aware of the frayed reality of their relationships with those near. That’s never a bad thing to recognize, and it seems particularly wise to work on forgiveness, with our ordinary companions, striving for that mutual love, before risking any encounter high up our mountain of prayer and our efforts to become closer to the Holy One.
Additionally and sensibly, the Episcopal Church makes Last Epiphany world Mission Sunday. “The Rev. David Copley, the Church’s Mission Officer, asks, ‘But what are we being sent out to do, and were are we expected to go? The mission that we are all called into as Christians is the mission of God.’ The annual observation of this Sunday was designated to increase awareness or, and participation in, the wider global mission of the Episcopal Church.” Reading this in the weekly Church bulletin from 815, it sounded to me like Mother Maria’s construction of “Love one another,” writ large, globally, and institutionally. It’s a scale of looking around and considering others from a place higher even than an Israeli mountain, but rather from one able to see around the whole wide world. That sight and what it requires, urges, and challenges us to see, do, engage in, work and fight for, and more is overwhelming. Looking down and around from there more probably will singe our backsides with the urgency of the work to do, whether in understanding, helping, protecting, healing, ormutually loving. The scale of work assigned to us is dauntingly vast, and we might well find the “Love one another” is directive enough to find the scale we can work on in our own practice and life… When one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. Therefore, since it is by G*d’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” Paul’s guide to this challenge for each of us as we work our way up towards the face of G*d shows us what we’re working at as we struggle to engage in mutual respect. We change, and are ever changing towards G*d’simage. one of Christ leading us. Whether in World Mission, or among the few of us here in this community, we are called to mutual forgiveness before we head up that Lenten mountain. We do not lose heart, for we are told that Jesus is there, going before us to lead and guide us bringing us and welcoming us to Paradise with him. Good News. Amen.
© Katharine C. Black St. John’s Church 10 February 2013
(following a major blizzard with many things closed)