Bearing the Light of Christ

March 3, 2019

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem using 2 Cor 3, Luke 9, at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 3rd March 2019, the Sunday next before Lent.

Let me introduce you to the first of two contrasting worlds:

It’s the world of a celebrity from Hollyoaks, who’s just told New! Magazine, “I’m a spiritual person. Sometimes, ten minutes before bed, I just chill for a bit and turn my phone off.”

Now, I’d like to take this statement entirely seriously. A woman in her thirties claims to be spiritual, and as evidence she explains that she turns off her phone for ten minutes before she goes to bed.

There’s truth here: she and we are aware that the barrage of stimulation coming through smartphones and many other channels must give way to something less immediate and insistent, less ‘in your face’.

And there’s more: beyond getting rid of distraction, this celebrity aims to chill for a bit, to relax. And actually, across all world religions, setting aside distraction and entering a state of relaxed receptivity is seen as essential preparation for prayer and meditation.

The trouble is, though, that this routine leads simply to bed. And it would be all too easy to read it as little more than preparation for a good night’s kip.

Cynicism apart, the difficulty with this way of being spiritual is the focus on dis-engagement, or tuning out, whereas Judeo-Christian faith always sees spirituality as about tuning in, about engagement with the mystery we call God.

As part of the preparations for our forthcoming exhibition launch, I’ve been writing captions for the touch-screen version of our 12th Century Winchester Bible, and in particular for the illuminated initial at the beginning of the Book of Jeremiah. Each hotspot for this initial needed a caption with a title, and the one where God commissions Jeremiah is called, ‘A Bracing Encounter’. Engaging with God doesn’t send us to sleep, but awakens us to reality.

So before we turn to this alternative world, a few further words of sympathy for our celebrity, who is only proving what T S Eliot wrote in his poem Burnt Norton eighty years ago, ‘Human kind / Cannot bear very much reality’.

To schedule in 10 minutes for a quick dip into inactivity gives a sense of how far many souls are prepared to dive into the unchartered depths beyond the surface of the screen.

If she were to give more time to dive deeper, I know what she’d find, because several people have confessed it in conversation this past week, and because I know a little of my own heart. Inside we feel worthless, empty and lost. To engage with our interior life is to journey into the wilderness, where we long to hide away in shame but also to be recognised and loved in our nakedness.

So the other world we need to explore today to answer the cry of our hearts is the world of Christian contemplation. And here’s the quote from today’s New Testament reading to start us off:  ‘And 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.’

We long for this glorious light but fear our inner poverty. We suspect that we are fake people, and therefore we do not consider ourselves candidates to face the light. We would rather sleep in sin than awaken to holiness.

In this regard, we’re in the same position as the first disciples at the Transfiguration. Having just managed to stay awake, they’re overwhelmed by the presence of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. They start burbling in order to avoid the impact of the light. They cannot comprehend what’s being offered in and through Him.

But the story doesn’t end there, with Jesus and his disciples at crossed purposes. After Jesus’ death and resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit it continues with the Church joined to his glorified body, and with its members all ‘with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.’ How we each get there is the question.

To step into the light, we first need to confess that we are sinners. Our greatest sin is not the thing we did which finally convinced us that we weren’t as good or respectable as we thought we were, that let people down horribly, that betrayed the ones we most love. These are just the consequences of sin. Our greatest sin is to want to stand alone.

When Adam and Eve tasted the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and God came to walk in the garden in the cool of the evening breeze, they hid among the trees from him. They could not face him, and soon they came to realise that they could not face each other either, without covering themselves up with fig leaves.

Our sin is that we would rather live with and in our own darkness than face the light. So we content ourselves with the knowledge that we are either basically good or especially damaged or wicked. Either way, we have no cause for God’s light. We stand alone for better or for worse.

But God’s light is gentler than we feared. At the Transfiguration it bathes Jesus and floods his inner being while he’s praying. It’s the light of God’s intimate presence, in which Jesus is affirmed as God’s beloved Son. Though its impact can be forcible on those who stand against it, its nature is kind and pure.

To let this light into our miserable hearts is to begin an authentic spiritual journey. Perhaps some of you saw the remarkable programme on the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, where medicine is injected directly into the brain. The results over time were startling.

And it’s the same with letting the light of God into the depths of our being. Gradually there are great changes.

It was Jesus persistent, fearless prayer that opened him up completely as a vessel of the light of God. 10 minutes a day of non-smartphone chilling is not a serious seeking after God, but a daily 10 minutes of offering ourselves to his healing light would be an excellent Lenten exercise.

And what of the longing to be known and understood? In our littleness and lost-ness, we long for reassurance that we are loved by God, and indeed these experiences are given to us occasionally, often completely unexpectedly, when we’re beyond caring or hoping.

More usually in my experience, however, God’s light clarifies our vision. Light is what we see by. It’s certainly no accident that the transfiguration occurs just as Jesus is setting out on his way to Jerusalem, to his execution. He needs to be clear that this is really the right way for him to travel.

As we grow in Christian confidence, perhaps having brilliant experiences of God becomes less important and knowing that we are in step with God more important. That glorious passage about seeing the glory of the Lord as reflected in a mirror and being transformed from one degree of glory to another ends not in an ecstasy of bliss but in ordinary ministry under pressure, with the expectation that we will be truthful and persevering ambassadors of the gospel.

Light opens our eyes to what we are called to do and light reassures us that the darkness of our hearts will not prevent us from fulfilling our calling. As St Paul’s says, ‘Therefore since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.’

The light cast upon us is the light we have we bear for others.