Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 5 August 2018, Transfiguration, United Benefice of Holland Park

Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 5 August 2018, Transfiguration, United Benefice of Holland Park

There’s a chapel dedicated to the Transfiguration near the 6,000-foot summit of Mount Athos, a sacred mountain and peninsula in north eastern Greece. Each year, before the feast day on 6th August, a party of monks climb the mountain. They carry tools and materials to repair the damage caused by the storms and lightning strikes of the previous winter. The monks then spend the night in the chapel, and keep the vigil of the feast. They return to their monasteries the following day elated, with the words of the night office still ringing in their ears.

The transfiguration is absolutely fundamental to the theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was important not only to the disciples of Christ, but for us followers of Christ today. The early church father, Origen, set in motion the long tradition of seeing the spiritual life as the climbing of a mountain through prayer and asceticism, in order to experience at the summit a transformative vision of God. One way of examining the theology, a way that the Eastern Church has found particularly helpful, is through iconography.

The oldest surviving representations of the Transfiguration is in the apse of the sixth-century monastery of St Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai. [in your service sheet]

In it is a bearded Christ in white and gold garments standing. His right hand is raised in benediction. He is positioned within a blue mandorla, an almond-shaped background, against a gold background.

There are eight rays that emanate from Christ: the two lateral ones touch the standing figures, Elijah and Moses, on either side of him. 

The prophet Elijah is on Christ’s right; Moses on his left The three lower rays reach down to John, Peter and James, who are depicted kneeling or lying down.

The status between Moses and Elijah, and the disciples may be different but they are all grouped around Christ on a gold background.

In later icons of the transfiguration, there is a marked contrast between the craggy surface of the mountain on which the apostles are depicted in various attitudes of striving, and the serene summit where Moses and Elijah are bathed in the divine light that emanates from the transfigured Christ. What this contrast depicts is something of the ascetic struggle that human beings need to go through in order to see God. But the effect for the disciples isn’t to distance them from the goal, its purpose is not to make it seem as though experiencing union with the divine is unattainable. In fact, the opposite. And in these later icons, we the viewers are placed in the position of the disciples in their experience of ascending to God in prayer.

At the transfiguration, the curtain between the material and invisible world is completely lifted visually. In the icon, Jesus stands, as it were, between the earth-bound visual material dimension and the invisible God’s dimension; between the material and spiritual. With the rays of light emanating from the mandorla, the icon reveals how these dimensions interpenetrate each other.

Celtic Christians speak about ‘thin places’ where the space between heaven and earth grows thin. My brother and I experienced something like this visiting a Buddhist stupa in Kathmandu – we both separately felt there was something special about the place, something we couldn’t really put into words.

The question that the transfiguration gave rise to a question: did this lifting of the curtain imply a change in the viewer rather than in the reality that was being viewed. Were the disciples’ eyes suddenly opened to a deeper reality that was already there? Or did Jesus suddenly become more transparent to the light and glory of God?

The sixth century monk and theologian, St Maximus the Confessor, said it implied an internal change. As just as it was for the disciple so also is an internal change required for those who seek spiritual knowledge. For him, there is a progression from the beginners’ stage to the advanced stage of those who have climbed the high mountain of prayer.

It’s only by having Christ radiant within us that we can enter into the truth which even in the Gospels is veiled from ordinary eyes.

The emphasis on a prayerful life and ascetic struggle, and of it only being available to a few who progress the ladder of ascent, I find rather challenging. It’s a corrective to the present modern perspective that guarantees easy access. The consumerist attitude is that if you want it, you can have it. And you can have it now – 24/7,

365 days/year. A form of this appears in Christian spirituality that promises ‘God on demand’. So, yes, a corrective.

The spiritual path is one that often involves struggle as we are transformed from one degree of glory to another. Our pilgrimage will involve setbacks and wrong turnings, times of doubt and despair, periods where God seems absent. This is all part of the Christian life. It takes practice. Coming to church week by week; regularly spending time in prayer, meditation, contemplation, the practice of yoga. And it can often feel rather hard work! And yet the weekly rhythm of the eucharist creates the possibility of a ‘thin space’ in our frenetic lives for a touch of the divine that will bit by bit transform us.

And yet I would also want to question the Orthodox perspective that this ascent to experience union with God is only for the few in this

life: for the religious, for monks in monasteries, for those who can completely devote themselves to a life of prayer.

Wherever we are on our spiritual pilgrimage – beginner or expert – what is essential is for us to have an open heart. The heart being the meeting-place of God within us. And so we pray that beatitude prayer:

that we may become pure in heart so that we may with the disciples see and encounter the living God. And that through this loving encounter we may be transformed.

Reference: Chapter 4, Fellow Workers with God: Normal Russell

Revd Dr James Heard

Vicar of Holland Park

Fr James Heard