It is the God who said “Let light shine out of darkness” who has shone in our hearts.
(2 Corinthians 4:6)
And speaking of hearts—Happy Valentine’s Day! When I was little, there were valentine cards with pictures mostly of animals carrying big red hearts. Kittens, puppies, monkeys, elephants, rabbits. Sometimes children. Little penny (or two-for-a-penny) cards with skinny little envelopes. We addressed one for each classmate (the prettiest for the friends we liked best), brought them to school and put them in a big box in the classroom, and then someone passed them out to us. And at home, too. There was always one a little larger than the others, signed without a name, but simply, in my Grandmother’s unmistakeable round schoolteacher handwriting, “Guess Who?”
Our readings today, have nothing to do with Valentine’s day. But in them, I think I see God playing “Guess Who” first with Elijah and then with Jesus—we see the yearning of their followers to stay close to them (which means staying close to God). And we see God revealing more of who they are—and by doing this, more of God’s self as well. Opening the envelope, so to speak.
The traditional icon of the transfiguration shows Jesus with Elijah and Moses hovering above Mount Tabor (1), while the disciples Peter and James and John have been knocked off their feet and are sort of strewn on the rocky slope below. Jesus is placed in a bright white light shaped sometimes like a mandorla and sometimes like a kind of crystal with geometric features. It’s meant to not so much illustrate, as to communicate God’s glory being revealed in Christ Jesus.
This episode in Mark’s Gospel comes at the point where Jesus’ peripatetic ministry of healing and teaching–a ministry he consistently warns his followers to keep secret—is about to take a turn towards Jerusalem and the tumultuous events that take place there during the final week of his earthly life.
For us churchgoers, the Transfiguration comes as the climax of the manifestation and wider and wider proclamation and, really, revelation of stretching from Christmas all through Epiphany.
As I read about the iconography of the transfiguration this week, I learned that when a monk began learning to write holy icons, the first subject they were given was always the icon of the Transfiguration,
This was not because it was the most important Christian episode. Nor because it was an easy subject. It was considered essential for the beginner to spend time working with the particular kind of light depicted in it—that light turned Jesus’ clothes an unearthly brightness. Mark’s Gospel tells us that “no one on earth could bleach them” such a dazzling white. The light that appeared on Mount Tabor… it’s called the Taboric light…is regarded in Orthodox theology as emanating from God’s intrinsic nature. It’s not the everyday light that God created when everything was made. “The idea is that this icon is not painted so much with colors, but with the Taboric light and the novice had to train [their] eyes to it.” (2)
And just as the novice iconographer needed to attune their skill to this most heavenly light, we Western Christians today are given this lesson, together with the reading from Second Samuel and the one from Second Corinthians, to contemplate on the Sunday before Lent.
These episodes come at turning points for the community. The followers face the prospect of their beloved leader’s death. These stories capture their fierce attachment, full of admiration and shaken, too, by fear and surprise and awe, during circumstances which nobody would describe as quiet contemplation. Not a bit. Turbulent. Full of uncertainty about the future.
Not unlike the times we’re living in today. In the face of uncertainty and even disaster. Where are the hugs and kisses we used to give and receive so casually? Zoom and chocolate and pancakes with syrup can begin to fill the gap, but we are hungry for the real thing. In the face of such loss, does the call to observe a Holy Lent seem superfluous or demanding…. or… does it actually strike you as wildly and exactly appropriate and even deeply attractive this year?
Consider for a moment what is God doing today, in the lessons provided for us. God chooses precisely this time to put a new light on things, to reward the yearning that the followers have. To confirm God’s own presence and power in the holiness of, first Elijah and then Christ Jesus, and encouraging them and strengthen them for all that’s ahead.
This Tabor light has another property, also connected with revelation in a different sense: It’s what hell fire is thought to consist of! This concept, elaborated by the 14th century Byzantine theologian Gregory Palamas, was controversial in its own day and not accepted by the whole church. But in my experience, it touches on something profoundly true—that when God reveals Gods self we see things differently and we become aware of the roots and consequences of our own actions.
Individually and collectively, whether in Washington DC or Moscow or Minneapolis or Montreal. There’s a cost to this kind of consciousness—and a discipline, and a promise.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, [1:18], St Paul writes: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
The scriptures today come to us perfectly appropriate for any times of transition and loss. Elijah’s earthly career is finished and Elisha will indeed inherit his role and be invested with his formidable power as a prophet and wonder-worker. Jesus has and will again predict his own suffering and death and the Holy Spirit will come upon his successors, shaping the same church we are today a part of.
The illumination by the Light of Mount Tabor is provided by God to not only see us through dark times, but to burn away the illusions we inevitably have about worldly power and worldly preoccupations.
Long long ago, this Cathedral welcomed a very earnest and intellectually agile assistant priest who later became the Principal of Diocesan College, John Simons. He had a young family then, and I remember one Sunday when he gathered the children around him at the Eagle to talk about the nature of God. Now, he said, imagine that God is up here (arm above head) and we are down here (arm sweeps over children). What keeps us away from God?
Of course, he wanted them to say “Sin.” But the children had not been briefed!
“What keeps us away from God?”
After a moment one little voice piped up. “Gravity?”
Beloved, whatever you decide to do or not do this Lent, don’t get dragged down by gravity.
“For it is the God who said ‘let light shine out of darkness’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” [2 Cor 4:6]
(1) Mount Tabor rises above the countryside of Galilee, not too far from Nazareth. If you go there today, there’s a curving paved road with switchbacks, almost all the way to the top, and up there, a large basilica and a small gift shop and expresso bar.
(2) The image of God the Father in Orthodox theology and iconography by Steven Bigham 1995
ISBN 1-879038-15-3 pp. 226–227 cited in https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Transfiguration_of_Jesus_in_Christian_art&oldid=1001314923