Sermon February 14, 2021
Fr. Bob - I always look forward to this day because it has so much meaning for me and for this church. The name of our church does not come from the name of a patron saint. Rather our church is named after an event. It is the event we celebrate today in our gospel lesson. It is the transfiguration of Jesus. Some people have come to the church and ask what does the name of the church mean. I wish everyone knew the story because through it we can see the transforming power of Jesus and we can ask Jesus to transform us.
We are so fortunate that we have an icon of the Transfiguration which normally hangs on the large cross. This icon was written, not painted by our own Bill Robinson. I have asked Bill to join me today to share information with you about the icon. It was a surprise to me when the icon appeared on the cross on the afternoon of my ordination, January 19, 2014. Bill, would you come and explain this icon for us?
Icon of the Feast of the Transfiguration - Bill Robinson
To understand the icon of the Transfiguration, you first need to have a short understanding of the nature of an “icon”, and why this particular graphic format is different from a standard piece of religious artwork. To begin, it should be mentioned that the word “icon” is kind of an overused word. We speak of Martin Luther King as an icon of the civil rights movement. We think of Elvis as an icon of Rock and Roll, or of Kobe Bryant as the icon of professional basketball. Yet the word “Icon” is simply the Greek word for image. For 1,700 years in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, and 450 years in the Anglican Communion, “icons,” have been specific symbolic images of Jesus, Mary, the Saints and, occasionally, the events of the church year. They are usually painted on wood, fresco or done in mosaic, and they always illustrate portions of scripture. Icons are regarded by the major liturgical churches as “graphic scripture”, and like scripture, icons are said to be written rather than painted. By interacting with them, in prayer and contemplation, icons can be a doorway to a spiritual connection that one might not otherwise experience.
If that seems like a bit of an anachronism with no relevance in today’s world, consider this: We call those little images on our computers and phones “icons”, and there is a very intentional reason for that. They work exactly the same way as religious icons. Instead of with prayer, we interact with computer icons by clicking on them and, with luck, a whole world of information opens up behind the icon. (Though, in my case, I haven’t completely abandoned the interaction by prayer—“Please God, let this program open up!”) Such is the case with the icon we have before us today: the icon of the Transfiguration of our Lord. It is intended to be interacted with in prayer to get it to open.
The three synoptic Gospels tell us that Jesus took the three apostles, James, Peter, and John “the beloved” and led them up a high mountain. There, as Matthew tells us, Jesus was “transfigured into blinding light; both his face and clothing changing before their eyes”. Luke, in today’s Gospel, writes, that “His face shown like the sun, and His clothes became dazzling white.” And again, Mark says that his clothes were “such that no one on earth could bleach them”.
Luke tells us that the transfiguration took place while Jesus was praying. This last commentary is what is depicted in this icon, where Jesus is raising His hands in prayer and, as Luke says, “While He was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and His clothes became dazzling white.” Then, before the eyes of the apostles, appeared the Old Testament prophets Moses and Elijah talking to Jesus. Then, if that was not already enough, a voice came out of a cloud and said, “This is my Son, the beloved.”
The icon we are discussing today is a symbolic representation of the event described in the Gospels. The composition of this icon follows a strictly symmetrical scheme. A stylized mountain landscape is characterized by a central peak, flanked by lesser peaks on either side. Jesus stands (or almost floats) on the central peak. He is clothed in a white and gold robe that appears to have dazzling light coming from within it. This is not sunlight. It is what students of theology refer to as the “uncreated light of God”-- a source of light, unlike sunlight or chemical light that appears to come right out of darkness. Furthermore, He is surrounded by a gold and red boat-shaped image known as a “mandorla—the ancient symbol of the creator God. At Jesus’ feet is a round medallion showing an Agnes Dei—the lamb of God, which is one of the earliest symbols for our Lord, and which appears in one of the panels in the stained-glass window around the entrance to the church. It represents what John the Baptist said as Jesus approached him to be baptized: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” On either side of His upraised arms are the Greek letters that form the abbreviations of His name (Jesus) and His title (Christ). In the ancient world, names and titles were believed to have great power and most icons in both the Orthodox and the Western Church are tagged with the name of the principal subject.
Jesus is flanked by the two prophets. Moses is on His left (your right), and Elijah on His right, each standing on his own peak. The image of Jesus is larger than the two prophets. This follows an iconic convention, which calls for the most important figure to be the biggest. Moses carries the tablets representative of the Law, and Elijah wears the “mantle of prophesy” that he passed on to Elisha before ascending to Heaven in the chariot of fire. We heard about Elijah’s mantle, or cloak, in today’s Old Testament lesson, and in the icon, it is shown as a somewhat ratty covering. The same cloak is also depicted, somewhat differently, in one of the stained-glass panels at the entrance of our own church!
James, Peter, and John are represented by the three medallions at the bottom of the icon. Normally, the three apostles are shown as figures rather than symbols, however, the round shape of this icon did not permit that design. The medallions, however, are accurate copies of the symbolic representations of these apostles that also appear in the stained-glass windows at the entrance of our church. These designs have been a part of this church since its construction. James is symbolized by the three shells. After his martyrdom in the first century, James’ remains were moved to the village of Compostela in NW Spain, and the cockle shell became the symbol worn by pilgrims to his tomb. Peter is symbolized by the crossed keys, based on what Jesus told him: “I give you the keys to my kingdom.” James’ brother, John is identified by the serpent in the chalice, which symbolizes his willingness to drink from the same cup as Jesus, and which leads to his death.
The Latin word for transfiguration, transfiguratio, means “to be changed to another form”. The Greek word is metamorpheos and has much the same meaning. The Transfiguration, therefore, is a revelation of Christ’s divine nature, a manifestation of the Trinity, and a confirmation of the continuity between the Old and the New Testaments. This is shown symbolically by all of the white and gold lines that crisscross the image of Jesus and seem to come from within Him, rather than from an external source. This light is the central feature of this icon and is known as the uncreated light of God. It is a supernatural light with transforming power that has its source in God’s own being. It is the light that Jesus Himself speaks of in John’s Gospel when He says “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” As Jesus becomes that light, his true nature is revealed. As Paul says in his letter to the Colossians, “For in Him the whole fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily.
Today’s Gospel account of the Transfiguration also serves as a very early recognition of the Trinity. The disciples hear the voice the Father, they see the Son, and they were enveloped by the Holy Spirit in the brilliance of the uncreated light. They also witnessed Moses and Elijah, who represented the “Law and Prophets”, and who confirmed that Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophesies of the Old Testament. Thus, the God they had served so faithfully for so long, without actually seeing, could now be seen and spoken to face to face. Here, in the blinding light on the mountain of the Transfiguration, the prophets and the disciples were able to witness God’s personified radiance directly.
Bill mentioned the symbols of Peter, James and John that appear in the icon and in the stained-glass window of the entrance to the church. I love the fact that the top of the church entrance has an image of the Superstition mountains. It says to me as you enter this place, God is present with us here and is ready to transform our lives. Bill has already explained a great deal about the transfiguration story. I would like to discuss the symbols of light, mountains, clouds and transformation that are common in the stories of Moses, Elijah and Jesus and talk how those symbols might bring us closer to God today.
Moses received the Ten Commandments while the Israelites were in the desert. He went up on the mountain. The mountain was covered in clouds and it appeared to those of the Israelites that fire was coming out of the mountain. The mountain and the fire signified the power and strength of God. The clouds indicated that only Moses was allowed to see God. Moses brought the law to the people.
Light and fire played a prominent role for Elijah as well. In his battle with those who worshipped Baal, Elijah called upon God to set fire to an altar of wood. God did so immediately. Later, Elijah also went to the mountain in order to escape the wrath of Jezebel. While on the mountain, he experienced an earthquake, fire and lightning. And then God spoke to Elijah. God was found in the light and on the mountain.
In the transfiguration story, Moses represents the law and Elijah represents the prophets. For us, Jesus represents both the law and the prophets for us. He interpreted the law in a way that we are expected to follow, just as Moses did. Jesus told the truth of how we are to behave just as the prophets did, especially Elijah.
As Bill has described, there is much symbolism to be found in today’s reading. We find uncreated light, whiteness, clouds and all of this happens on the mountain. Moses and Elijah found God in the light from a fire or from lightning. But during the transfiguration of Jesus, the light emanated from his body. It was uncreated light. Light is an important element in all of our understandings of our faith. In the transfiguration, we encounter God's light emanating directly from Jesus. We pray that the light of Christ will show forth in our lives. The glory of Jesus is revealed to us through this light. We celebrate the divinity of Christ in this event.
We believe that we are made in the likeness of God. One way that we enter into that relationship with God is through baptism. We leave behind a life of sin and we enter into a life of grace. Many parents often clothe their children in an outfit of white. White signifies purity but it also signifies the glory of Jesus. Just as a white light emanated from Jesus, we pray that we will be clothed in that same light of God. We can pray that we will receive just a small portion of the grace and purity that flows from Jesus. We pray that we will live our lives in a way that the light of Christ shines forth from us.
People often refer to a unique and special event as a mountaintop experience. As Christians, we often think of a mountaintop experience as a special time when we encounter God. While we celebrate the mountaintop experience of the transfiguration of Jesus, I would suggest that we try to put ourselves in the place of the disciples. Here were the close friends and followers of Jesus. They encountered God in a special way while they were on the mountain. Today, I would encourage you to remember a special time that you encountered God. I know for me one of those times was the weekend that I spent learning about Christianity at Cursillo.
Let us remember how Jesus has transformed our lives and continues to do so each and every day. Let us remember that special time that you encountered God and use that memory to strengthen anew our faith and our determination to follow Jesus. Amen.
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