From Christmas Day until today, we have been celebrating festivals of light. Think back – we had the angels singing in the sky at Christmas, the star shining for the three wise men, the heavens opening as Jesus was baptized, the dazzling light that threw Saul off his horse on the way to Damascus, and the candlelit procession last week for the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Glorious, shiny moments all of them. And just before we turn to the reminder of dust and ashes this Wednesday, as Lent begins, we have one more shiny celebration.
Every year, on the Sunday just before Ash Wednesday, we read the story of the Transfiguration of Christ. This is perhaps the shiniest moment of them all. Peter, James and John are dazzled by the brilliance of the glory that surrounds Jesus, who appears with Moses the Lawgiver and Elijah the Prophet. In icons you always see the three disciples tumbling down the mountain with their hands over their faces, unable to bear the light.
Perhaps you find this story puzzling. Many people do. Clearly it is a story of deeply symbolic significance. We heard earlier about Moses, whose face shone as he came down the mountain with the tablets of the Ten Commandments. It seems that the glory of God rubbed off on him, and it was too much for ordinary people to look at. He had to put a veil over his face so as not to blind them.
Then we turn to Luke’s account. Now dates and numbers are always significant in the Bible. He is telling us about something that happened on the eighth day. That should make us think of the first day of the new creation, the day after the Sabbath, the day of resurrection that we call Easter. In this story we are having a preview of the glory of the risen Christ, before he accomplishes his departure in Jerusalem, as Luke describes it. In the coming weeks, Jesus will be seen as a troublemaker, a blasphemer, a rabble-rouser, a common criminal, and he will be put to the most shameful death the Romans can devise. But the truth of who he really is can be seen on the mountain: he shines with the glory of God.
And it’s not just Jesus and Moses who shine with God’s glory. Paul tells the Corinthians that they are shining too. All of us baptized believers, he says, as we look into the mirror, see the glory of the Lord reflected back at us, because we are being transformed by the Spirit from one degree of glory to another.
That’s a shiny moment that we may have overlooked! We all look in the mirror to check out our spots and wrinkles, but do we expect to see glory reflected back? I don’t mean, of course, that we should be worshipping our physical perfections, but it is an amazing fact that it is we who reflect God’s love in the world. We are not only the hands and feet of Christ in the world, we are the face of Christ to all those we meet.
These shiny moments in the church calendar are not about some feel-good emotional experience. They are not all about me, and the buzz I get from religion. The transformation that Paul and Luke are talking about is not a magic makeover for the purpose of dazzling onlookers. It is a slow transformation, by degrees; it’s the lifelong work of the Spirit in each baptized believer.
We start off with a moment of glory, the sacrament of baptism that Timothy will shortly be conferring on little Cara. That’s the moment when heaven opens for each of us and our eternal life begins. The christening photos that show the flame of the baptismal candle uplighting the face of the candidate tell us a theological truth: we are to shine in the world to the glory of God the Father.
But from then on it’s a hard trudge, let’s be honest. We can’t just expect baptism to work like a vaccination. It’s more like a door opening into a new world. It’s a threshold we cross, with our pack on our back and a staff in our hand, setting out on the journey to become the person we were created to be. With the Jordan water still on our forehead, we have to place our feet on the dusty path to Jerusalem.
Well, in all fairness, it will take a little while before Cara, and Zahrya a few weeks ago, are ready to be pilgrims. But our adult candidates who were baptized by the Bishop two weeks ago have been called to this journey, and as they grow up, the babies we baptize are to be formed in discipleship. That is what their parents and godparents promise to try to do.
And for all of us who have reached the age of responsibility, the beginning of Lent this week is a good moment for us to review our spiritual practice. Are we forming the habits that will transform us, day by day, into people who reflect God’s light in the world?
These may be habits of the mind, making an effort to read and to think seriously about our faith and the challenges to it. That will be the focus of our series on Atheism in Lent, which I hope many of you will sign up for today.
We may be working on habits of the body, reducing our dependence on caffeine or sugar or alcohol, and trying to be more active, so that we have the energy to live as we would like to.
Perhaps we are planning to concentrate on habits of the spirit, committing ourselves to a discipline of prayer and Bible reading that will become part of our daily routine and deepen our relationship with God in the long run, through Lent and beyond. The Week of Guided Prayer is meant to be a step in this direction.
Or perhaps our focus will be on the habits of the heart, making sure that we spend face to face time with the people we love, giving them our full attention instead of the offcuts of our busy lives.
All of these habits, of mind, body, spirit and heart, are needed for our gradual, day-by-day transformation into the people God calls us to be. Remember that the work of transformation is God’s. That’s where it all begins, and that is where the power to change comes from. The challenge to us is to allow grace to have some victories in our lives, so that we begin to shine with the glory that we reflect through our baptism.
May that be the path that Cara begins today. May it be the path that all of us pledge ourselves to with a renewed hope, as we set out on the journey through Lent.