Sunday before Lent - Choral Eucharist
Precentor - Revd Canon Andrew Zihni
Ever since I was a boy, I have always been an avid reader of detective fiction, and, in common with many of my friends at school, Sherlock Holmes was one of my literary heroes
Outside the collection of famous novels by Arthur Conan-Doyle, a story is told of an occasion once when Holmes and Dr Watson embark upon a rather unlikely camping trip. After an excellent dinner and a decent bottle of wine, they retired for the night, and went to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes woke up suddenly, and nudged his faithful friend in a frenzy.
“Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see”, he said. “I see millions and millions of stars, Holmes”, replied Watson. “And what do you deduce from that?” Watson pondered for a minute, proud that he might at last have an opportunity to display that he is indeed Holmes’s intellectual equal: “Well, astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful, and that we are a small and insignificant part of the universe”.
“What does it tell you, Holmes?” Holmes was silent for a moment. “Watson, you fool!” he says. “What this tells me is that someone has stolen our tent!”
In this morning’s Gospel Reading, we hear the famous story of the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor; and in the midst of the dazzling lights, the dramatic appearance of Moses and Elijah, and the thunderous voice of God from the heavens, St Peter seems to respond in a Dr Watson sort of way by declaring: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”. Though, in this case, far from making a seemingly pointless observation, Peter declares a theological truth that has much to teach us about how we should live out our Christian discipleship.
The Festival of the Transfiguration that the Church celebrates on 6th August goes back to the fourth century, when St Gregory the Illuminator, the patron saint of Armenia and founder of the Armenian Church, substituted it for a pagan celebration of Aphrodite under the title Vartavarh, which means ‘rose flame’. St Gregory kept this date for the Christian feast because, in his words, “Christ opened his glory like a rose on Mount Tabor”.
It is a particularly interesting image, especially when we read the Gospel of the Transfiguration on this Sunday before Lent, when roses, in the midst of all the snow and ice over the past week, have been nowhere to be seen. All around us there are bare branches, with perhaps just one or two little reddish buds giving a glimpse of hope of where the new growth will come in the spring.
And here lies the interesting connection with the story. In revealing himself in this majestic and extraordinary way to the disciples, Jesus reveals the wonder that God became human and we, though creatures of clay, are filled now with hope of the divine glory – just like those little buds about to spring into beautiful roses.
What this also means is the call for us to see Jesus in ourselves, as well as in others; and having such a huge reverence for him that we simply cannot choose but to live out our lives in joy, openness, and love. This is the theological truth that Peter recognizes in today’s Gospel reading.
We have, of course, to outwork this in reality, and I believe we can do so by keeping two things in mind: first, as Peter’s somewhat clumsy but endearing enthusiasm in the face of the Lord’s Transfiguration suggests, we, as Christians must never forget to be open to the Holy Spirit, who is God in us and God in one another.
The gift of the Holy Spirit is a promise that we are the children of God, and that God is in us, and that we can overflow with his life. God’s gifts to us are many and various; but all are of equal value in his sight. Walt Whitman illustrates this better than I could in his poem Song of Myself:
Why should I wish to see God
better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God,
and in my own face in the glass.
I find letters from God dropped in the street, and everyone is signed by God's name.
It is because of the Holy Spirit in us that these words ring true; and being aware of God’s Spirit in us and in others is an important factor in living the kind of discipleship to which we are called.
Secondly, besides filling us with his life, the Holy Spirit fills us with God’s love. The consequence of this is that we should attend to the needs of others, whatever they may be. The Gospels challenge to do good in the little things. As Jesus often pointed out to his hearers, they can perform all the sacrifices and rituals they like; but without the due care and right treatment of others in every aspect of our everyday lives, irrespective of race, gender, sexuality or anything else, all religious acts become empty and meaningless. We cannot claim that we love God if we have no genuine love of those around us. Often what it takes is a kindly word, a smile, a happy gesture. It is not a great deal to ask, but it is something that can make all the difference for someone and give them the strength and encouragement to keep going on.
As we prepare for the start of Lent on Wednesday of this week, this joy and love, which comes from recognizing Christ in us and Christ in others, is the way in which we can keep a good Lent. The season of Lent is meant to be a time of joyful simplicity when we run free on the road to salvation, as St Benedict once wrote.
Now, with huge apologies for the possibility of giving offence to Hodge the Cathedral Cat, being myself a dog owner and only beginning now to learn more about cats, I have often been amazed by how much the example of my Jack Russell, Bertie, has helped me to understand how to respond to this idea of Christ in ourselves and Christ in one another.
For a start, Bertie makes his life so much simpler: he only has one thought for each paw – food, food, sleep and food. Everyone is his very best friend, and he never holds grudges. And he doesn’t do guilt or resentment. Instead he only does joy, and lots of it! And Bertie’s joy is infectious, because it is impossible to look at his big, brown eyes and constantly wagging tail without feeling much more cheerful.
Would it not be wonderful if we could all be a bit more like this? Bringing joy, positivity and happiness to all those whom we meet; keeping as joyful as we can, and putting aside that cynicism that can so eat away at us? Ultimately, God calls each and every one of us to bask in the sunshine of his love. Isn’t that a wonderful thing?
So, as Lent approaches, we may be feeling a little ragged, especially in this ongoing time of pandemic, but this is the time to start afresh, with new opportunities and new challenges.
Jesus’s transfiguration reminds us that the love of God is constant in our lives. As our journey through Lent unfolds, how about reminding ourselves of this more often? I have no doubt that we shall (then) share that love more often, too. For if we want to see God, we have the means to do it: God is love.