Eucharist Sermon - 14 February 2021

The Sunday Next before Lent
2 Corinthians 4:3–6, Mark 9:2–9
Canon Professor Carol Harrison, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity

Recognising Christ

Following Christmas, the Church’s calendar seems to be full of feasts of recognition. At Epiphany, the Magi arrive at the stable and recognise the newborn baby as the Messiah, the King of the Jews.

At the baptism of Christ, the voice from heaven identifies Jesus as the Son of God, the Beloved.

At Candlemas, the aged Simeon, taking Jesus in his arms as Mary and Joseph brought him to temple, recognised him as the long awaited one: the saving light and glory of all nations.

And just last Sunday, we heard some of the key Scriptural texts which recognise Jesus’ divinity: in Colossians, Paul described Christ, the eternally begotten Word of God, the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, the one in and through and for whom all things in heaven and earth were created…. In the Prologue of John’s Gospel, we heard that: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God… all things came into being through Him… we have seen his glory…, full of grace and truth.

The Magi, Simeon, Paul and John all recognised in Jesus the eternal Word of God. But how? How, we might ask, can we lift our eyes, with them, from Jesus the man to Christ the Word? What was it about the baby in the manger; the child brought to the temple; the teacher and preacher from Nazareth, that brought those who encountered him to see the light and glory; the grace and truth of God, and to proclaim and worship him as His eternally begotten Son.

Our Gospel this morning both answers this question, I think, and yet leaves us wondering.

At the transfiguration, Jesus, who had ascended the mountain with Peter, James and John, is transformed before their eyes; his clothes become a dazzling unearthly white; they see him speaking with Elijah and Moses, the two great representatives of the Old Testament Prophets and the Law.

So, we might say that at the Transfiguration the light and glory of Jesus’ Godhead was clearly revealed, in all its dazzling splendour, for the three disciples to see. There, before them, was not only Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary and Joseph, but Christ, the Son of God.

But the way the disciples react to this vision doesn’t really confirm this/bear this out. They don’t fall down and worship the transfigured Jesus as God; they don’t proclaim his identity as the promised saviour who fulfils all prophecy and inaugurates a new law; they don’t pay him homage or offer him gifts. Instead, they are at a loss; they are terrified; they don’t know what to say; Peter bumbles something ridiculous about building three dwellings, one each, for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. We might wonder just what he was thinking? Whatever it was, it isn’t the immediate response you’d expect from someone who stands before the eternally begotten Son of God and who has been confronted so directly by his light and glory.

[Mankind cannot bear very much reality!] Indeed, it seems that in the Gospels, the real moments of recognition don’t happen in response to dazzling revelations. It is as if human beings cannot bear them, can’t comprehend, cannot see; humans are all too human and respond in all too human terms. [The miracle stories, for example, which reveal Christ’s divine power, do sometimes prompt faith, but more often they invite misunderstanding, suspicion, even hostility.] Human beings are unable and unworthy to look upon God – and that is precisely why Christ, the eternally begotten Son of God, became flesh and entered our very human world: to meet us in our own terms, on our own level, in the midst of our darkness, confusion and terror.

For it is in the darkness, I think, rather than in the light, that the gospel tells us we can encounter Jesus’ Godhead.

Following the events we have just described on the Mount of Transfiguration that darkness descends: a cloud overshadows everyone. They no longer see, but simply hear a voice: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him’. We have heard this voice before, of course, at Jesus’ baptism; it is the voice of God the Father, who eternally begets his beloved Son, the Word, and who has sent him to take flesh, so that we, too, might be united in the love with which they are united, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God isn’t seen; he is heard. He identifies the man Jesus as His Son, the one whom he loves. When the disciples look around, they no longer see the dazzling, terrifying vision, or Moses and Elijah. As Mark puts it: ‘they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus’.

‘But only Jesus’. I said that it is in the darkness, rather than the light, that we encounter Christ’s Godhead. This is because, as the voice at the Baptism and Transfiguration make clear, Jesus, the eternally begotten, beloved Son of the Father, is himself love, and is sent in love to save us through love. He empties himself in order to become one of us and to love us to the point of dying for us. His love is not something that we can see like the vision of the Transfiguration, but something that comes to us, is present to us, dwells with us, in our darkness, suffering and pain; always giving, always emptying itself, ready to sacrifice everything for the sake of another. This is what it is to be God; this is what the Godhead of Christ really is, and we come to know it, share it, and be transformed or transfigured by it, in love.

So although we can never look upon God – we are too human, too weak, too darkened – we can see His light and life, reflected in the human face of Jesus Christ, who looks upon us and speaks to us in love. As our epistle put it: God has ‘shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’. It is the glory of love.

Mark does not mention it, but in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus comes to the terrified disciples, touches them, and tells them not to be afraid. This is the moment, I think – not at the Transfiguration, but when they are reassured by a very human voice and touch - when they were indeed able to see the light and life of God, reflected in the human face of Christ, looking upon them and speaking to them in love.

I was moved when I read a piece in the newspaper last weekend, by a doctor working in intensive care. It is an almost impossible job at the moment, pushing people beyond their limits, demanding everything, full of darkness and indescribable pain and grief. She wondered how she and her fellow doctors survived, and then reflected: ‘however bleak the times, however grim our prospects seem, human kindness finds a shape and form: it will not be locked down. All across the hospital you see it. In the tiny crocheted crimson hearts, made by locals for patients and delivered in their scores so that no one feels alone. In the piles of donated pizzas, devoured at night by ravenous staff. In the homemade scrubs, whipped up by an unstoppable army of self-isolating grandmothers whose choice of fabrics is fearlessly floral. In the nurses and carers and porters and cleaners who keep on, despite everything, smiling. I may be tired and angry and sometimes mad with grief, but every single day at work, I see more kindness, more sweetness, more compassion, more courage, more resilience, more steel, more diamond-plated love than you could ever, ever imagine. And this means more and lasts more than anything else, and it cannot be stolen by Covid.

This is the light that shines in the darkness; the self-giving, self-sacrificing love that transforms and transfigures; that shines in the darkness and will not be overcome. This is the place where we can lift our eyes from Christ the man and recognise him as Christ the Son of God: the place where darkness is transfigured by self-giving love.