Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sermon: Transfiguration of Our Lord (14 Feb 2010)

Sermon: Transfiguration (14 Feb 2010)
(Exodus 34:29-35/Psalm 99/2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2/Luke 9:28-43a)
From Glory To Glory

The Lord has shown forth His glory.
Come, let us adore Him.

Note: The Revised Common Lectionary places the Feast of the Transfiguration on the last Sunday of Epiphany and not on 6 August as do Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican lectionaries.

St. Jude, the brother of our Lord, was deeply concerned for the purity of the faith. Just a few decades after the events of our salvation he writes:

Beloved, while eagerly preparing to write to you about the salvation we share, I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. 4For certain intruders have stolen in among you, people who long ago were designated for this condemnation as ungodly, who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (Jude 3-4, NRSV).

There are those in every age – Jude’s and ours – who, through active disobedience or passive ignorance distort the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Some merely wander away from the truth themselves; some, tragically, draw others away with them. And so Jude reminds us, the church must be ever vigilant and uncompromising in defending its faith in our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

So how do we know, some two millennia after St. Jude’s time, that we have received and now hold the true faith? How has the faith once for all delivered to the saints been preserved for us? The compact answer – which itself takes great care and time and effort to unpack – is this: the ancient and true faith of the Church is preserved in the Tradition of the Church. As Paul writes to Timothy, the church of the living God is the pillar and ground of the truth (cf 1 Tim 3:15). The Tradition of the Church is multifaceted, consisting of scripture, creeds, ecumenical councils, hymns, prayers, liturgy, and the communion of the saints – all of whom lived for and many of whom died for the faith. We read the truth in the Scripture and we proclaim the truth in the creeds. We sing the truth in ancient hymns and we pray the truth in our common prayers. We worship the Truth, in truth, through sacred liturgical word and sacred sacramental action and we embody the truth as we take our place in the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us as we do these things. All these repositories of the faith work in synergy to teach and preserve and pass on the faith – the whole faith and nothing but the faith – each supporting and supplementing the other. The faith once for all delivered to the saints is “that which has been believed always, everywhere, and by all,” as St. Vincent of LĂ©rins expresses it.

This faith is not of human origin or devising; it is the stuff of revelation and experience. Peter writes:

16 For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. 17 For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” 18 And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain (2 Peter 2:16-18, NKJV).

Peter describes the Transfiguration of the Lord, clearly a pivotal moment in his faith and a testimony to all who follow. We have the Transfiguration in Scripture, in the records of eyewitness testimony – here and in all the synoptic Gospels. But we have it, too, in other repositories of the Tradition: in hymns and prayers which serve as the Church’s commentary on Scripture. These offer great insight into the significance of the event for those who witnessed it and for all who have received the Tradition.

From the East there are two hymns: the Troparion and the Kontakion of the Transfiguration.

Troparion of the Transfiguration
You were transfigured on the mountain, O Christ our God, revealing as much of your glory to your disciples as they could behold. Through the prayers of the Mother of God, let your everlasting light also shine upon us sinners. O Giver of Light, glory be to You!

Troparia are musical collects; they collect or summarize the theme or themes of the liturgical celebration. The Troparion of the Transfiguration is sung at Vespers on the eve of the Transfiguration and again at Matins the following morning. What themes does it express?

First, it proclaims that the man Jesus transfigured on the mountain was Christ our God, that the glory seen there was the glory of God in the face of man: You were transfigured on the mountain, O Christ our God. Paul says it this way:

15 He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. 18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence.
19 For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, 20 and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross (Col 1:15-20, NKJV).

Jesus is the image, the exact likeness, of God – God in his fullness in flesh and blood; that’s what was revealed on Mt. Tabor that day. But this God, Creator of all things, was also revealed as the Christ/Messiah, the Redeemer of all things, who through the cross would reconcile to Himself all things on earth and in heaven. This was Jesus the man the disciples knew, and this was Jesus their Savior and God – one Person, truly man and truly God. Jesus’ humanity was not a disguise he wore and laid aside at the moment of Transfiguration, nor was his divinity something foreign and added at the moment of Transfiguration. Jesus was revealed as he is and ever shall be: one Person, fully God and fully man – Christ our God.

Second, the troparion says that Christ our God revealed only as much of his glory as the disciples could behold. Did you ever wonder why only Peter, James, and John were selected to witness the Transfiguration? The troparion suggests – and the church fathers agree – that only these three were ready and able to behold the glory of God, to see the uncreated light. There is biblical precedence for such a notion. In the Beatitudes Jesus says: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” These three had the purity of heart to see the glory of God revealed in the face of Jesus on the mountain. Of course this challenges us: if we would see God – and the Tradition maintains that we can – then we must pursue the purity of heart acquired only through a disciplined life of love and obedience, of prayer and fasting and repentance.

Let us pray.

Grant us, O God, to behold your light and your glory as we are able and, through your mercy, purify our hearts that we may be worthy to behold you ever more clearly and fully, through Jesus Christ our God, the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. Amen.

Kontakion of the Transfiguration

You were transfigured on the mountain, O Christ our God, and your disciples beheld as much as they could of your glory, so that when they would see you crucified, they would understand that You suffered willingly; and they would preach to the world that You are truly the reflection of the Father.

Kontakia are long, theologically rich songs; typically only a short portion of each is sung in worship. The Kontakion of the Transfiguration echoes the same themes as the Troparion but adds an important element; it connects the Transfiguration to the crucifixion. The Transfiguration reveals ahead of time that the crucifixion is not a defeat but a victory. The Transfiguration reveals ahead of time that the glory and power present on the mountain are also seen – and perhaps best seen – in the shame and weakness of the cross. Jesus is compelled to die only by his love for man and his obedience to the Father, not by the cunning of the priests or the abusive power of Rome. His life is not taken from him, but offered up by him. Jesus himself says as much.

17 “Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. 18 No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father” (John 10:17-18, NKJV).

The Transfiguration reveals the cross as a thing of glory amidst shame and power amidst weakness. As Paul writes,

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor 1:18, NKJV).

Of course this challenges us: to embrace shame and weakness as the true Christian expressions of glory and power. If we would be transfigured with Jesus on Tabor, we must be crucified with him on Calvary through a life of dying to self.

Let us pray.

Let us see, O God, as much glory in the shame of the cross of our Lord as in his Transfiguration, as much power in the weakness of the cross of our Lord as in his Transfiguration, and let us ever hold fast to that life-giving cross that, joined to his death, we might know also the victory of his resurrection, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

We have heard from the East in these two great hymns. Now, from the West there is a prayer, the Collect for the Transfiguration.

Collect of the Transfiguration
O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

This collect explicitly links Jesus’ transfiguration to our own: Grant to us that we…[may] be changed into his likeness from glory to glory. These words reference St. Paul: 18 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor 3:18, NKJV). To look upon the glory of the Lord – to look upon it in Spirit and truth and worship – is to be transformed into that same image, transformed into like glory. We become what we gaze upon; we become what we worship. This is the hope and promise of theosis: the purification, illumination, and glorification of man – union with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. We do not know or see this fully yet, be we are granted a glimpse of glorified humanity in the Tranfiguration of our Lord; what he is in his humanity, we shall also be. About this, St. John writes:

2 Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. 3 And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure (1 John 3:2-3, NKJV).

But this collect also explicitly links the glory of our transfiguration to the burden of our cross: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory. So many in the communion of saints have known – and still know – what we often prefer to forget: that suffering is the womb of glory, death the seed of resurrection. St. Paul writes:

10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

There is a fearful and wonderful symmetry here[1]. We see Christ transfigured and then take up his cross. Thus strengthened, we take up our cross and are transfigured.

Of course this challenges us: to see the way of the cross as the way of glory, to take up our cross daily and follow Jesus Christ our Lord, to die with him – moment by moment, that we may live with him unto the ages of ages.

These two great hymns and this one great prayer are sure repositories of the Tradition of the Church, the faith once for all delivered to the saints: that Jesus transfigured is Christ our God; that Jesus transfigured willingly sacrificed himself on the cross for us and for our salvation; that Jesus transfigured, crucified, and risen again, bids us take up our own cross; that Jesus transfigured transfigures those who bear the cross into his glorious likeness – from glory into glory. Amen.

[1] The symmetry of the collect is chiastic (from the Greek chi, X) and has the form ABBA:
A – Jesus’ transfiguration
B – Jesus’ cross
B – Our cross
A – Our Transfiguration
It is interesting in this context – though purely incidental – that X is the first letter of Christos/Christ. See

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