Sermon at Canterbury Cathedral, Morning Service
Sunday 2nd March 2003A sermon delivered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at the Morning Service at Canterbury Cathedral.
It's only fairly recently that our church has begun to commemorate the transfiguration of Jesus on this Sunday just before Lent. We associate it in the calendar with the festival in August. But here we are, before Easter, celebrating, commemorating, this story in the Gospel, in a way which, at first, seems rather puzzling. But if you think of it, the effect of hearing the story of Jesus' transfiguration this morning - just before Lent - has the effect of framing the whole of Lent between two parallel stories. A story of Jesus going into a lonely mountainous place to pray, attended by his three closest friends: Peter; James; and John. A story in which Jesus, as he prays in solitude, enters into a mystery so great that His friends shrink from it and have no words for it. Because, you see, at the beginning of Lent we have that story of the transfiguration and at the end of Lent the story of Jesus going to pray alone in the garden of Gethsemane. The same story? Yes, but how very different. In both Jesus prays alone; in both there is a revelation of the Father; in both those three friends shrink in terror.
To frame the season of Lent in that way is to tell us that out Christian life is always, so to speak, lived between those two stories, between those two poles, those two moments of prayer and revelation. On the mountain of transfiguration, as the Gospel tells us, Peter, James and John see the veil lifted. They see, as it were, that behind and within the human flesh and blood of Jesus there is an unbearable light and glory: a radiance better than any light on earth. They see that His flesh and blood - though it is flesh and blood just like ours - is soaked through with that glory and brightness which is the work of God. They see that His human nature is shot through with God's own freedom. And then at the other end of Lent they see that that radiance, that glory and brightness and liberty, is exercised and made real in accepting the pain of the cross for the love of humankind. They see that the blinding power of God is exercised not in crushing and controlling, but in the sacrifice of love. Perhaps it begins to make sense that we live between those two visions. We can't understand the glorious brightness of God unless we see that God's power and splendour is entirely focused on that sacrifice of love which sets us free and gives us life. And we can't understand the darkness and the terror at the end of the story, at the end of Lent, unless we see that in the depths of that is the glory of God. And that, of course, is why St John, in his Gospel, again and again, refers to the crucifixion itself as Jesus being made glorious. The dazzling freedom of God, the total weakness of God, bound together, woven together, in one vision, in one person, in Jesus Christ.
If our Christian life, like Lent itself, is framed between those two points, that teaches us something of the vision that we need to have as Christians. Things are dark, things are threatening. What do we do, like good Christian human beings? We panic. Or things are going well, things are successful. What do we do, like good Christian human beings? We gloat. But if our lives are lived indeed between those two stories, then both panic and gloating should be impossible for us. Things are dark and difficult. The world is a terrible place, full of the threats of violence. The church is a terrible place. Do we panic? We look into the depth and see how the freedom of God is there even in failure, even in crisis, to bring life and love. Things are going well: this is a little less usual, I grant you. Things are going well, the church looks wonderful, the world looks peaceful. What do we do? We think of how power and peace and security must be turned by our sacrificial giving into love. So these stories tell us not only of how glory and sacrifice are blended together, woven together in Jesus. They tell us how to understand His church and His world. How in our discipleship we have to weave together the vision of glory and the call to sacrifice. Black armbands and champagne are equally only a part of the story because the mystery of Jesus Christ is precisely that glory is most fully opened up, its depths revealed and, in the very darkest moment of Jesus' self loss and self sacrifice, all of that infinite power which is God's is directed like a laser beam, to the welfare and the healing of you and me and the very weakest and most forgotten of God's children.
William Blake, a couple of centuries ago, prayed to be delivered from single vision and Newton's sleep. By Newton's sleep he meant the scientific world view as a thing in itself which gave you a one-eyed vision of the world. But it's not a bad image to think about. It's very easy for us to have one-eyed vision and the Gospel requires us to have full, binocular vision.
Just to finish, I can perhaps share with you a memory from my time in Wales when I made a visit to a primary school and, a week or so later, met one of the parents of a child in that school who told me that she had been very puzzled when her little girl had come home and said they'd had a visit that morning from the optician. She was a bit puzzled about this, she didn't know that opticians regularly went round schools but investigation revealed, in fact, that the visit had in fact been from the optician of Wales no less. Opticians correct your vision, opticians help you to see properly out of both eyes. It may be that modest redefinition of the task of an Archbishop by a primary school child in Gwent is a vocation worth thinking about.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
© Rowan Williams 2003