Sermon for Sunday 27 February 2022
The Sunday Next Before Lent
Of all the powerful and moving stories that have emerged from Ukraine in the past three days, the one that touched me most deeply was the interview with a mother who had been bombed out of her home. As she put her six-year-old son to bed in temporary accommodation, he made a bedtime wish that the war would end and that President Putin would become a good person.
I believe that child’s words give us a window into the mind of God. Vladimir Putin claims to be an Orthodox Christian. I am not going to make any guesses about the state of his soul. But every Orthodox believer is taught that we are created for glory, for union with God. Christians of both East and West profess this. St Augustine, in a sermon on the Eucharist, said “Behold what you are. Become what you receive.”
This is not about striving to do our best. It’s not about our efforts at all. Today’s collect makes that plain: may we be strengthened to suffer with Christ and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory. It’s about a transformation wrought in us by grace, the free outpouring of God’s love.
Today our readings invite us to consider the vision of that glory as we perceive it in human faces. Each of the readings has something to say about this. In Exodus we read about Moses being unaware that after a face-to-face encounter with God on the mountaintop, his face shines to the extent that the Israelite people are frightened by the sight of him and he has to put on a veil in order to calm their nerves.
St Paul, writing to the Corinthians, makes a polemical point about the Sinai covenant giving way to the new freedom found in Jesus Christ. He asserts that the reason Moses covered his face was to hide the transition from the law to life in the Holy Spirit. It is Christians, he says, who are able to gaze unveiled into the mirror and see the transformation that is taking place in each one of us. We are being changed from glory into glory till in heaven we take our place, as Charles Wesley’s great hymn Love Divine, all loves excelling expresses it. No longer is a shining countenance reserved for those like Moses who see God face to face on mountaintops. We are all destined for glory like his because through our baptism we are truly members of the transfigured, resurrected and exalted Body of Christ.
And of course the rich gospel reading for the Sunday next before Lent is, as it always is, the story of the transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah on the mountain witness to Jesus as the source of the uncreated light that throws the disciples into a state of terror and confusion. Significantly, it is the glory of his coming Passion that they are discussing with him when they see this light. I’ll come back to this in a minute.
So what is it about shining faces? It has been observed that visionary experiences correspond to the theology and devotional practice of people who undergo them. Hundreds of Western Catholic Christians from Francis of Assisi to Padre Pio have mysteriously manifested the wounds of Christ in hands, feet and side. These strange events happened in a religious culture that since the early middle ages has dwelt prayerfully on the sufferings of Christ in his humanity.
You don’t hear of Orthodox Christians receiving the stigmata. The characteristic visionary experience of the East manifests not as wounds but as shining. There are numerous stories of the 4th century hermits in the Egyptian desert appearing to their disciples as all afire. Centuries later, while the Russian saint Sergius celebrated the Eucharist worshippers saw heavenly fire fall from above onto the altar. A disciple of another saint, Seraphim, saw him surrounded by divine light and said, “I cannot look at you, father, because lightning is pouring from your eyes. Your face has become brighter than the sun and my eyes ache.”
The prayer of Orthodox Christians normally takes place not before a crucifix but in the presence of icons, and one of the most popular subjects is the Transfiguration of the Lord. If your prayer life is rooted in the contemplation of uncreated light pouring out of the darkness of eternity like a tidal wave flowing over you, it is likely that the glory of the Lord rather than his human suffering will shape your religious perception.
But we can’t skip over the suffering. I said I would return to the subject of discussion between Jesus, Moses and Elijah on the mountain top. This shining Christ is not yet resurrected; he has not yet been crucified. The vision of Jesus’ glory is given to Peter, James and John in preparation for what they will witness at Gethsemane and Calvary. As Rowan Williams says, it is given “they may know that these terrible moments are freely embraced by the God-made-human who is Jesus, and held within the infinite depth of life.”
When the agony of the Passion comes, it will not be an abandonment of Jesus by his Father, even though it may feel like it in the extremity of his suffering. The uncreated light that originates in eternity and causes Christ to shine is the light that cannot be thwarted or darkened by any human experience, however dreadful it may be. God’s presence persists.
I have felt this strongly in the past few days as reports of the heroism of the Ukrainian people have flooded our media. We must watch from the sidelines as those whose land, homes and families are threatened stand resolutely with courage and even humour in the face of potential annihilation. A farmer offers to tow a broken-down Russian tank back across the border. An elderly man sees his wife to safety and then returns to defend his homeland, saying that though he can barely walk he can still crawl. A young couple get married in church to the sound of air raid sirens and then immediately join the resistance together.
As I’ve read these stories, I’ve had a strong sense of God’s grace being poured out upon those who face suffering with such courage. Ukraine may stand alone militarily. We who witness their danger can at least put pressure on politicians to cut off Russian access to corrupt money and accept the economic sacrifices that may result. But what we can all do is to pray. The Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, wrote this week that “prayer is … about learning to look through the eyes of God who loves justice, condemns lying … and abhors the violence of the powerful… Prayer changes us before it changes anything else.”
St Paul, writing to the Corinthians, claims that all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. That is a theological truth. When we look into the mirror in the morning, what we may well see is a tired and grumpy countenance, a little more lined and saggy with each passing year. But the mysterious truth is that, no matter how un-Instagrammable our face may be, if we are open to God’s unchanging love, then day by day we reflect more of the light we have seen in Jesus Christ. Each one of us, each member of the whole human race, is a unique and infinitely precious image of God. We do not look for encounters with the divine in abstract ideas; we look for God in the faces of one another.
Lent will begin in a few days’ time. Pope Francis, supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury and many other church leaders, has called for Ash Wednesday to be a global day of prayer and fasting for Ukraine, for Russia and for peace. It is easy to see the work of grace in heroic resistance. But the perpetrators of great evil are God’s children too, for whom Christ died. May we see the transforming action of God’s love and grace in all who are caught up in this conflict. And by the mercy of God, may that young child’s bedtime prayer, that President Putin might become a good person, be a contribution to that transforming love in the world.
The Revd Preb Marjorie Brown