Revd Ray Williamson
22nd February 2009, Last Sunday after Epiphany, Transfiguration
One of the things, I know, people here at St Philip's appreciate is beautiful music, and how grateful everyone is for the way our worship here is enhanced by all that Colin and Pat bring and make possible for us in terms of excellent music. In an interview given on the ABC, Peter Philips (Director, Tallis Singers) said: "I represent the point of view that God is beautiful, and can be approached — best approached — by us mortals through beauty. Any sort of beauty — it could be a beautiful building, or incense. I represent music, and my experience is that good music takes people nearer to God than anything else, and quicker. It happens just like that. You feel God, right there".
Abp Rowan Williams has reflected on the fact that Christians have used all kinds of images to try to speak about the way we understand the person of Jesus. "One image", he says' "that has helped me a good deal over the years is to think about music for a moment. When you see a great performer, a singer or instrumentalist, at work realising a piece of music, you are looking at one human being at the limit of their skill and concentration. All their strength, their freedom, and you could even say their love is focused on bringing to life the work and vision of another person. … Here is someone who is completely themselves, free and independent, and yet for this time the whole of their being, their life, their freedom, their skill, is taken up with this mysterious, different thing that is the work to be brought to life….
"Now, could we imagine what it might be like for a whole life-time to be given up to 'performance' in that way? Because that, surely, is what we're trying to say about Jesus as a human being. He is performing God's love, God's purpose, without a break, without a false note, without a stumble".
Let me now come at that same kind of image in a slightly different way. Do you remember the film,Amadeus, about the life of Mozart? [It is 25 years this year since we first saw it in the cinemas]. Towards the end of the film, Salieri — always motivated by envy and admiration — goes to Mozart's home and asks his wife if he can see the score of one of Mozart's great works. When he looks at the manuscript, he sees that every note is written perfectly — not a single mistake. This is surely only the final draft, Salieri assumes, and so he asks if there are earlier ones that he could see so that he could get a sense of how Mozart had developed the work. But no; this is the only one. He is struck by absolute amazement. Only one manuscript, and not a single note crossed out or changed!
The great 20th century theologian, Karl Barth, was a deep lover of Mozart's music. He once said that he thought that when Mozart composed his music it was as though he could already hear it — 'out there' — and that he was so attuned to it that he could just write it down without mistake. That, he said, helps us to understand the life and meaning of Jesus of Nazareth. It was as though Jesus was so in touch with God, could 'hear' God so clearly, was so attuned to God that he could 'write' — could live — the love and purpose of God in his own life without a break, without mistake, without a stumble.
It is that that is the glory we see in Jesus.
Michael Ramsey, the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, preached his last sermon to the All Saints' Sisters in the chapel of their house in Cowley, Oxford. Owen Chadwick, Archbishop Ramsey's biographer, tells us that the Mother Superior was fearful that the old and frail archbishop would not be audible. But every word was heard. "Each time he said glory", Professor Chadwick tells us, "it came out as a shout". On Archbishop Ramsey's memorial stone in the cloister of Canterbury Cathedral are inscribed words of Irenaeus (a 2nd C. Christian writer):"The Glory of God is the living man; and the life of man is the vision of God".
That epitaph — even if today we would have to reword it - goes far to explain the incomparable Michael Ramsey. It also takes us to the heart of the story of the transfiguration, which meant so much to him.
The transfiguration is a revelation of Christ's identity, and, in him, it is a revelation of our destiny.
The story could be said to be in all four Gospels, although John does not tell it the way Matthew, Mark, and Luke do. They tell this one story to show that the divine light shone in Jesus. For John, the whole story of Jesus is one of humanity transfigured, of incarnate light. "The Word was made flesh and dwelled among us, and we saw his glory".
"We saw his glory", says John. "Theysaw his glory", says Luke, referring to Peter, James, and John. Only Luke makes plain what Matthew and Mark imply: that what the disciples saw in the face of Jesus was the glory of God.
The transfiguration is a revelation (manifestation) of Christ's identity, and, in him, it is a revelation (manifestation) of our destiny.
The transfiguration remains a mysterious episode. But it is really about the closeness rather than the remoteness of God. It is a mountain-top experience, and in biblical thought mountains are natural locations for divine-human encounter: on mountains the air is 'thin' in more senses than one. But the 'thinness' of the divide between human and divine on the mountain reveals an equal thinness on the plain — a translucence of the divine that mystics see in everyday human life.
Today, in Australia, is being observed as a National Day of Mourning because of the tragedy of the recent bushfires in Victoria. As Abp Philip Aspinall has written again last week, it is "an opportunity to join together with local communities in reflecting on the devastation of the fires, giving thanks for the bravery and commitment of those who fought the fires and those who continue to provide care and support for those affected, and in expressing our sure hope that the light of Christ will shine in this current darkness". He also urged us not to overlook the suffering experienced in other parts of the country as a result of severe flooding.
He saw it as a day to express "our hope that the light of Christ will shine in this current darkness". How do we discern the shining of that light? When we think of the overwhelming response of concern and generosity from the broader community, through the eyes of faith we can see it as a reflection of that light, as an expression of the love of God, as a sign that, although the vast majority may not name it as such, deep within people are attuned to that Other that we name God, Love, with whom Jesus was so perfectly attuned. The 'thinness' of the divide between human and divine on the mountain reveals an equal thinness on the plain — a translucence of the divine in everyday human life. And when we all see it — as in the response to the suffering of others — we recognise that it is something good, and that it is life-giving.
But for us, today is also the end of the season of Epiphany. It is a season that is all about manifestation. That is what the word means. It is about the manifestation of the glory of God in Jesus.
It is the season that began seven weeks ago with the story of the Wise Men. The following week it was the baptism of Jesus. And we conclude today with the Mount of Transfiguration. There are many parallel features in those two stories — of baptism and of transfiguration. The gospel writers use the story of the baptism as an affirmation of Jesus' sense of identity and vocation. They then use the transfiguration as an affirmation of Jesus focussing his discernment of vocation to see that it will take him to Jerusalem, to suffering and death. The transfiguration points towards that journey he will make to Jerusalem — and beyond, to Resurrection.
We are standing on the edge of the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is only three days away. You know of the two Services here — the Eucharist with the Imposition of Ashes — in the morning and evening. There can be no more important way to begin our observance of Lent than worshipping on Ash Wednesday.
The invitation of the season to us is so to journey with Jesus towards Good Friday and Easter that we realise something of our own destiny to manifest God's love — that we too might hear the music of the love and purposes of God — be so attuned to God, to be so in touch with God — that we might grow in our life of faith and live a little more fully and clearly the love and purposes of God in our own lives. As we do, it will sometimes feel as though we are with Jesus on the mountain, but mostly it will feel like being on the plain. But whatever we feel at any particular moment, we will never be truly far from the One who is the source of our life and our hope.