The Sunday Next before Lent
7 February 2016
Exod 34: 29-end, Luke 9:28-43a
May I speak this morning, in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
You may have noticed a slight anomaly in this morning’s readings.
The readings set for today are that of Jesus being transfigured or changed and shining with the light of God, and the related reading of Moses having to cover his face as it shone so much from being in the presence of God. And yet you may have noticed that today is not actually the Feast of the Transfiguration which doesn’t happen until the 6th August.
This is because the church calendar actually presents us with the Transfiguration of Jesus twice each year. The main Feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated on the 6th August because that is the anniversary of when the monastery on Mt Tabor was dedicated, and Mt Tabor, as I am sure you know, is the mountain on which the transfiguration happened. In the Eastern Orthodox church in particular the Feast of the Transfiguration is a major event, and we shall hear a little more about the Eastern approach to the uncreated light of God in a moment.
However, we are also presented with the events of the Transfiguration today, in this slightly strange season that hovers between Epiphany and Lent. This period of transition from Epiphany to Lent actually suits today’s reading well because when Jesus is changed and the voice of God rings out this is undoubtedly a moment of epiphany for the disciples, which doubtless changed them almost as much as it changed Jesus. So, in one sense, it is a hangover from epiphany. But it is also casting us forward into the wilderness of Lent but it is doing so with the hope, with the promise, that the wilderness does not just hold trial and temptation but that the glory of God is waiting to burst through. We know that on Easter Sunday the Angels will be at the tomb in their dazzling whiteness and that today we see Jesus in his shining glory and I like to think of these two moments of luminescent brightness as being like a pair of brackets around the purple pilgrimage of Lent and the darkest moments of the passion.
Whenever I think of the uncreated light of God bursting through into creation I am always put in mind of a saint of the Eastern Orthodox church, called St Seraphim of Sarov. Seraphim was a Russian Orthodox monk who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries and his name actually means ‘fiery’ and is also an order of Angels – the cherubim and Seraphim.
I shan’t regale you with all the events of St Seraphim’s life, although he is definitely worth reading more about, but I did want to read you an edited account of when he was speaking to a visitor to his monastic cell and they both experienced something of the mystical light of God:
“Then Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: “We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don’t you look at me?”
I replied: “I cannot look, Father, because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain.”
Father Seraphim said: “Don’t be alarmed. Now you yourself have become as bright as I am. You are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God yourself; otherwise you would not be able to see me as I am.”
After these words I glanced at his face and there came over me an even greater reverent awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light of its midday rays, the face of a man talking to you.
You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders; yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his figure, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards and illumining with its glaring sheen both the snow-blanket which covered the forest glade and the snow-flakes which besprinkled me and the great Elder. You can imagine the state I was in!
“How do you feel now?” Father Seraphim asked me.
“Extraordinarily well,” I said.
“But in what way? How exactly do you feel well?”
I answered: “I feel such calmness and peace in my soul that no words can express it.”
“This,” said Father Seraphim, “is that peace of which the Lord said to His disciples: My peace I give unto you; not as the world gives, give I unto you (Jn. 14:21). If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you (Jn. 15:19). But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (Jn. 16:33).
“What else do you feel?” Father Seraphim asked me.
“An extraordinary sweetness,” I replied.
And he continued: “This is that sweetness of which it is said in Holy Scripture: They will be inebriated with the fatness of Thy house; and Thou shalt make them drink of the torrent of Thy delight (Ps. 35:8) . And now this sweetness is flooding our hearts and coursing through our veins with unutterable delight. From this sweetness our hearts melt as it were, and both of us are filled with such happiness as tongue cannot tell. What else do you feel?”
“An extraordinary joy in all my heart.”
And Father Seraphim continued: “When the Spirit of God comes down to man and overshadows him with the fullness of His inspiration, then the human soul overflows with unspeakable joy, for the Spirit of God fills with joy whatever He touches . . . What else do you feel,?”
I answered: “An extraordinary warmth.”
“How can you feel warmth, my son? Look, we are sitting in the forest. It is winter out-of-doors, and snow is underfoot. There is more than an inch of snow on us, and the snowflakes are still falling. What warmth can there be?”
I answered: “Such as there is in a bath-house when the water is poured on the stone and the steam rises in clouds.”
“And the smell?” he asked me. “Is it the same as in the bath-house?”
“No,” I replied. “There is nothing on earth like this fragrance.”
And Father Seraphim, smiling pleasantly, said: “The sweetest earthly fragrance cannot be compared with the fragrance which we now feel, for we are now enveloped in the fragrance of the Holy Spirit of God.
This Kingdom of God is now within us, and the grace of the Holy Spirit shines upon us and warms us from without as well. It fills the surrounding air with many fragrant odours, sweetens our senses with heavenly delight and floods our hearts with unutterable joy.
And during the whole of this time, from the moment when Father Seraphim’s face became radiant, this illumination continued; and all that he told me from the beginning of the narrative till now, he said while remaining in one and the same position. The ineffable glow of the light which emanated from him I myself saw with my own eyes. And I am ready to vouch for it with an oath.”
St Seraphim and his visitor were absolutely filled with the presence of God the Holy Spirit on that occasion and Seraphim linked this type of experience with the work of God we saw in today’s readings. If I may quote him directly for a moment:
“[T]he Lord has frequently demonstrated before many witnesses how the grace of the Holy Spirit acts on people whom He has sanctified and illumined by His great inspirations. Remember Moses after his talk with God on Mount Sinai. He so shone with an extraordinary light that people were unable to look at him. He was even forced to wear a veil when he appeared in public.
Remember the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor. A great light encircled Him, “and His raiment became shining, exceedingly white like snow” (Mk. 9:3), and His disciples fell on their faces from fear. But when Moses and Elijah appeared to Him in that light, a cloud overshadowed them in order to hide the radiance of the light of the divine grace which blinded the eyes of the disciples. Thus the grace of the All-Holy Spirit of God appears in an ineffable light to all to whom God reveals its action.”
There is much else I could say about the meaning and the events of the Transfiguration, I know I have spoken about it in the past and will doubtless get plenty of opportunities in the future, especially as it comes round twice each year. But today I want us to dwell on that ineffable, glorious, radiance of God which transfigured Jesus, which shines through the angels, which radiated from Moses and which transformed St Seraphim. There is much in the world which seeks to darken our outlook, which even seeks to rob us of faith, and if we take it seriously even the journey through Lent can become a dark night of the soul. But as we prepare ourselves for that journey, and even for the journey back out into the workaday world, remember that the Holy Spirit, the comforter, never leaves us and, if we have eyes to see, the ineffable light of God burns within each one of us.