Alan and I weren’t supposed to be here in Dorset today. Our original plan for August 6 2020 had been to be on the isolated and mountainous Greek island of Ikaria up in one of the island’s hill top villages celebrating first with liturgy in the church, which would then be followed with communal food and wine on trestle tables in the courtyard outside. We would be marking the village’s patronal festival of the transfiguration. For reasons that you can imagine in several of the Ikarian hill top villages the church is dedicated to the transfiguration, that occasion recounted in the Gospels when Jesus took his inner circle of his disciples up a high mountain and quite literally they saw him in a new light.
We have never forgotten how years ago in the late 1980s we did happen to spend August 6 on Ikaria. It was not due to conscious planning though even in those days the transfiguration was a festival that was dear to both us. We were staying in the port of Evdilos and we had heard about the festivals in the mountain villages, so mid morning we got a taxi, there was really no other way to get there, to one of the villages where at the church we shared in at least the second half of the liturgy, and then joined in the communal feast that was the next part of the celebration. I think we may well have been the only non villagers present, there certainly were no other travellers from abroad. The system was that one needed to buy a ticket for the meal, which we duly did. The ticket entitled one to as much local wine and bread as one could drink and eat, and one’s portion of the meat being served at the festival, which was goat. Now as it happens I have never really taken to goat, so I rather tentatively picked at my portion but left most of it on my plate.
The celebration was still in full swing when in the middle of the afternoon Alan and I felt that we felt we needed to take our leave. We were planning to walk down the mountainside to get back to the coast, and it was probably going to be a two to three hour trek. But as we prepared to leave, the villagers around were clearly horrified that we were apparently planning to leave our uneaten portion of goat behind. It was explained to us that we had paid for it with our ticket, so it was ours. It would have created an international diplomatic incident if we had insisted, and so we allowed it to be wrapped up in brown paper as a parcel and handed to us to sustain us for the walk. I do however have to confess that once we were on the path and as we thought far enough away from the village, we unwrapped the parcel and left the goat remains in a wayside bush. Mind you when we looked back only a minute or so later we could already see a cluster of birds of prey swooping on the bones. It had clearly become a feast day for them as well.
Ever since I have wanted to celebrate the feast of the transfiguration on Ikaria once more. In fact we have revisited Ikaria on one occasion – in July 2016 – and it is still a delightful island. But of course during the past few years as a loyal member of Holy Trinity Geneva choir each year around 6 August Alan has been busy with choir residencies, first in Worcester and last year in Chichester. Those, probably rightly, took priority. But this year there was an extra reason for wanting to be on Ikaria for the feast of the transfiguration, and so there had been an internal Amos negotiation that this time we would journey to Ikaria for 6 August.
And then… well you don’t need me to remind you how the best laid plans of mice and men – and even women – got thrown in the air a few months ago. Which is of course in turn why we are holding this eucharistic celebration via Zoom today.
Why is it that I, indeed both Alan and I, cherish the feast and theme of transfiguration? Although I am writing a book on this topic, I don’t think you would appreciate a detailed resume, so on this occasion four brief interlocking points.
First some wonderful words of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury. In his book, ‘The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ’ Ramsey reflected: The transfiguration ‘stands as a gateway to the saving events of the gospel, and is a mirror in which the Christian mystery is seen in its unity. Here we perceive that the living and the dead are one in Christ, that the old covenant and the new are inseparable, that the Cross and the glory are of one, that the age to come is already here, that our human nature has a destiny of glory, that in Christ the final word is uttered and in him alone the Father is well pleased. Here the diverse elements in the theology of the New Testament meet.’ As Ramsey suggests, the transfiguration is at the heart, core and centre of the New Testament, holding together the great Christian themes of incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. In fact I would probably go further than Ramsey does in this comment and suggest that the transfiguration really lies at the core of Christian theology and spirituality. Indeed Christian spirituality has itself been described as ‘the art of transfiguration.
Secondly Michael Ramsey and his theology sum up for me what is the best about the Anglican tradition. And I think that it is no accident that Ramsey cherished the transfiguration so deeply because I believe that there is something about the transfiguration which reflects the particular charism of the Anglican way. For Anglicanism at its best seeks to interweave in a creative tension two contrasting trajectories or threads. As Anglicans we value tradition, continuity, hierarchy, worship, our internal life, the role of authority, the importance of unity; but we also acknowledge the need for transformation, for outreach, change, egalitarianism, for subversiveness, diversity and mission. If you unpack the story of Christ’s transfiguration, both in terms of its Old Testament precursors and its place in the Gospels, you find both these threads held together creatively in the story.
And I think our task as Anglicans, and as a particular expression of Anglicanism sitting in Geneva and France voisine, is to be a visible expression of the ‘good’ (a word that appears in the transfiguration narrative) of allowing both threads to interface with each other. Because in their meeting and dialectic there is a special transfiguring power which takes us to the heart of the Gospel. It is not easy: most people and places fall off one side or the other. But it is I believe a challenge worth striving for.
Thirdly, in the professional work that I have been doing over the years in the field of religion and violence, I have begun to explore how religion as transfiguration can be a vital antidote to religion understood as fundamentalism which I regard as profoundly dangerous. Fundamentalism is intrinsically dualistic, with a sharp dichotomy between good and evil and the blind certainty of its proponents can lead to desire for violent change. Transfiguration on the other hand, at its core affirms the goodness of creation, and of the world which God so loved. It calls us into a conversation which changes us as we seek to change the world by drawing closer to God. Indeed we discover that we cannot change others unless we ourselves are willing to continue to be transfigured as well. Something of this is caught in the icon that is portrayed on our service sheet – painted by a 15th century artist Theophanes the Greek. Notice how the light shining from Christ seem to touch, and sink into the forms of the disciples themselves, and invite them to respond so that the they – and we too – as created beings can be illuminated and transfigured by the meeting between the light already within us, and the light which beams from the figure of Christ, so that gradually the circle of transfiguration widens out to include others in Christ’s transfiguring light.
Finally, until the twentieth century the transfiguration was a neglected feast within the Anglican tradition. It wasn’t until 1928 that the keeping of the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6 was mandated in an Anglican prayerbook. Now in fact the Transfiguration does rather well – for as well as August 6 it is also commemorated either in or just before Lent. Yet the two occasions in which the church calendar encourages us to remember this Gospel story have a rather different feel from each other. Back in or near Lent, we are encouraged particularly to reflect on Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop as being the precursor to Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and to the cross.
The celebration of the transfiguration at this point in the year in August is not quite the same. Falling as it does towards the end of the liturgical year, and close to the time of harvest in the northern hemisphere, it encourages us to reflect on the eventual destiny of creation, when all in the end will be harvest. Eastern Christians who have seen a profound link between the transfiguration and the need for care of God’s good earth have a sure instinct. The transfiguration of Christ is a foretaste of the time when the whole of creation will hopefully share in the circle of God’s movement of glory and blessing. Something that took place 75 years ago today has sharpened the importance of that meaning. It was in fact why Alan and I had hoped to be celebrating the feast of the transfiguration on Ikaria this particular year. For on 6 August 1945 the first atomic bomb was detonated at Hiroshima. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that particular action and its implications for the end of the Second World War, there is certainly a very bitter congruence that it should have happened on this particular day. There is a challenging prayer which speaks of the fact that now we as humanity have been offered the choice of two ways to walk, towards the radiance of the transfigured Christ or the disfiguring radiance of the bomb, towards the radiance that descends to touch, to heal and to restore, or towards the radiance that descends to defend, to murder and to destroy. We have in fact been offered the choice between life or death.
Until two days ago that was how I was planning to end my sermon. Then on Tuesday evening there was the dreadful explosion in Beirut. Thankfully it was not a nuclear bomb. But it is telling that people in Lebanon have referred to it as Beirut’s Hiroshima. As most of you probably know Lebanon is very dear to both Alan and myself. When we lived there during the civil war, Alan wrote a prayer that was used regularly in All Saints Anglican Church where he was chaplain. I draw on this to end by praying for the transfiguring of the achingly beautiful land of Lebanon:
God bless Lebanon,
Guard her children,
Guide her leaders,
Give her peace;
May Lebanon become once again a place of unity in diversity,
Where all may learn to honour one another,
And humankind as your creation.
In the name of Christ we pray. Amen.