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  • Writer's pictureFather Nicholas Lang

The Transfiguration

If you go to St. Bartholomew’s Church, that grand Romanesque-style edifice on Park Avenue in New York City, and look up into the apse over the altar, you will find a stunning mosaic of Jesus, flanked by Moses and Elijah and his friends Peter, James, and John—the Transfiguration icon. The artist’s vision and execution point toward the light—Christ the light of the world.

 

Writing in his weekly email message in the midst of the financial crash of 2008, Father Bill Tully, retired St. Bart’s Rector, suggests we consider this: an October 25, 1929 minutes of the vestry records that “during the summer of that year, the apse mosaic was installed.” Four days later came black Friday, the collapse of the stock market. “Our mosaic—our Christ, the light of our life,” writes Father Tully, “has looked over a world of many such collapses of wealth, value and meaning.”

 

The Last Sunday after Epiphany is always a pivotal celebration on the church calendar. The Gospel we read is the fascinating story of the transfiguration, an event which turns us from Jesus’ ministry of miracles and healing to the beginning of his journey to Jerusalem and his death.

 

It’s a Gospel that suggests movement from seasons of joyful celebration—Christmas and Epiphany—to the more solemn season of Lent which begins this Wednesday. Today we bid farewell to the jubilant “Alleluia” word, to brighter vestments, and to Atar flowers.

 

The Evangelist Mark describes a thrilling moment, revelation and high drama, a story about dazzling light shining in the darkness, a vision of utter glory. The locale of the mountaintop offers Peter, James and John an intimacy with Jesus mirroring a closeness to God and God’s way of communicating with them. There is a sense of great mystery and awe sharpened by Jesus’s being transfigured before them, his countenance becoming as bright as the sun and as white as snow.

 

It’s a story of brilliant light but I wonder is its meaning lost in a world that can seem so dark. How do we preach the Gospel that speaks of glory and light in this time of war in the Ukraine and Gaza, threats of nuclear retaliation, the political disfunction in our nation, the crisis at our border, and the post-COVID era of anxiety and depression that has affected younger generations, and general apathy about religion and decline in most faith communities?

 

It is said that when the great Rabbi Israel Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews, he would go into the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire and pray a special prayer and the miracle that was needed would unfold and the misfortune facing God’s people would be averted.

 

Later, his disciple, under similar circumstances, would go to the same place in the forest and implore: “Master of the Universe, I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer”—and again, the miracle would take place.

 

Years passed and it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to lead his people in times of misfortune. Sitting in his armchair and holding his head in his hands, he cried out: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the right place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and that must be sufficient. And it was.

 

Maybe when darkness seems to cloud the light and we are unable to find the place in the forest, or pray the right prayer, or light the fire—we can still tell the story of Jesus and a few of his friends up on a mountain. It is a story about Christ’s call for us to see the world, to see our lives, in a new light—that God is with us and in us and among us.

 

When we are unable ourselves to light the fire or pray the prayer or even find the forest, God is still working in the world, bringing Divine Light into our messy state of affairs—sometimes despite—or through our human stumbling and doubts.

 

The people who designed and built glorious St. Bart’s in Manhattan were not fazed by the failing financial markets of their day. They proclaimed a faith in the human ability to get the light they needed, opened themselves to faith, and did not give up on all the possibilities.

 

We are in the midst of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of St. Andrew’s Church, a faith community that had its genesis in the cottage services held in February, 1917, in the midst of World War I and the Russian Revolution. Since then, the faithful of this church have lit the fire, prayed the prayer and told the story through the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, 9/11, the financial collapse of markets, the COVID pandemic and many other dark times.  

 

The Christ in the apse of the nave of St. Bart's is still there and will be for years to come—long after our present world woes are just a memory. There is a Christ whose presence carries us beyond the commonplace: shining with divine visions of hope and glowing with a grace that we have never seen before. And we, by the grace of God, are here. We are here.

 

Christ’s Church, alive here in Milford, the light of our life, has looked over a world of many collapses of wealth, value and meaning for a century. Still, sometimes all we can do is to tell the story, that God is with us and in us and among us and that must be sufficient. And it will be.

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