Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass the Transfiguration of Our Lord 2017

Daniel 7.9,10,13,14
2 Peter 1.16-19
Luke 9.28-36

I’m indebted to Fr Peter Anthony, the vicar of Kentish Town, for a theological conundrum. If one of the disciples present at the Transfiguration had had a camera, could they have photographed it? There is no definitive answer, but in general Western theologians tend to say yes, it was an external phenomenon, but Eastern ones says no, it was an interior experience.
How you answer reveals different approaches to seeing. In the West, we tend to think of sight as processing something external to us. In the East, it is much more an interior experience, an act of contemplation, not just taking a look but attending deeply to what is really there.
The East is probably nearer to the Biblical idea of seeing. We have to forget Newton’s optics. Sight was thought of as a ray coming out from the eye, exploring and encompassing that which is seen. This explains what may seem to us to be a puzzling saying of Jesus, in Matthew 6, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness”.
To see something is to touch it, to hold it. This is the root of the word “behold”. Ultimately to see is to take the thing seen into yourself. To see another person is to share their life at a deep and mysterious level. True seeing in this sense is something interior and spiritual, an experience of communion.
A camera lens cannot do this – all it can produce is a static record of a moment that is already past. It is not an opening to communion. A camera can take a picture, but it can never behold.
This is why the Bible says so much about seeing, and the beauty of God. “I saw the Lord!”, cried the Prophet Isaiah. This is spiritual seeing, not physical, an interior experience, for God is the author and source of all beauty, and his beauty is entirely that of the Spirit.
It is also why the Bible is concerned about the abuse of seeing, through lust and covetousness. Jesus says that just to look at another person with lust is already to have committed adultery in your heart. It is to attempt to hold a person, to internalise them as a mere commodity. Its result is the opposite of communion, to which all true seeing should lead.
Seeing, then, is something that changes the beholder. The Transfiguration changes the appearance of Jesus, his face and clothes. But it is not any change in Jesus himself. He is in fact what he always has been, the Son of God from all eternity, and the Son of Man since his incarnation. The voice from heaven has already proclaimed him to be this, at his Baptism.
Nothing has changed in Jesus. When the message from heaven is repeated at his Transfiguration, it says what has always been true. What has changed is that the disciples are seeing it for the first time. The Divine light has entered them, and they are being transformed by it, so that they can see Jesus as he really is.
True seeing is a spiritual and interior transformation. It requires training, a life of prayer and co-operation with grace. At this point in the gospel story it is only the three inmost disciples who attain to this vision, Peter, James and John. They have been prepared by their closeness to Jesus and his teaching for their inner eye to be opened. But true seeing also requires persistence. The same three disciples will fall asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane, not staying awake to pray.
Nevertheless the vision of God, the seeing that transforms, is the goal of the spiritual life, even if our glimpses of the Divine are fitful and brief, and we too often fall back into spiritual sleep. The whole of the life of grace is a tale of gradual transformation, lamented falls alternating with hesitant advances. But through it all the Spirit of God is working. As St Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit”.
St Paul says this when speaking of the ministry the Church has received, the work of justification, that is, of putting the world at rights with God. It is not any qualities of our own, but the transformation worked by the Spirit, that is the source of “the confidence that we have through Christ towards God”.
The Church is called to be the visible sign of God’s kingdom in the world, just as all disciples are called to be ambassadors of Jesus Christ in our daily lives. But we can only be this by the work of the Spirit, changing us into the image we reflect, the Divine Son with whom the Father is well pleased.
This is why the mission of the Church absolutely has to be rooted in prayer and the life of the Spirit. Nothing else will do. Without the life of the Spirit, whatever outreach we engage in, whatever projects we may devise, are simply not going to open people to the vision of God which transforms. At best, we will achieve a good piece of social work. There is nothing wrong with social work, but, without interior transformation into the image of Christ, it is not the work that the Church has been given to do.
In order to be ambassadors of Jesus Christ, in order to be the Church in the world, we have to allow the Spirit to work in us, just as the disciples on the holy mountain had done.
How do we do this? The usual ways. Conversion of life, constantly turning away from the things that diminish communion and towards the Lord who calls us to himself.
Prayer, opening our hearts to the Lord, beholding Christ with the eye of the spirit. This opens us to the deep experience of communion, the seeing that transforms. Prayer takes time, both time every day and time throughout our lives, patient waiting on the Lord as St Peter says in this morning’s reading, “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts”.
And the sacraments. Living our baptism, which is our primal once-for-all illumination. Holy Communion: not just as a matter of form, but coming to the Eucharist with real intention and hunger for the Lord, who gives according to our capacity to receive. And the sacraments of healing and confession, according to our need. It is all work, the work of a lifetime, but most fundamentally the work of the Spirit in us.

The only church that will transform the world is a Church that lives from the deep experience of the seeing that transforms, of being changed into the image it reflects, from glory to glory. The world awaits the salvation that comes from the light and holiness of God. And, by God’s providence, every disciple of Jesus Christ has a part to play in that, through their own transformation into the image of Christ, the Lord. The world will know its Lord through those who have learned to see him as he really is.

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