Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at St Giles, Horspath and St Mary’s, Garsington on Sunday 10th February 2018.
Readings: 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9.
There is something very special about entering a church during the day, at a time when you know you will be alone. It almost feels naughty, as you gingerly fumble at the archaic latch, edge open the heavy door and creep into the darkness and stillness of this sacred space. It takes a while to adjust but always what is most striking, what draws the gaze are the windows. Whether it is the crucifixion at St Giles’, or the roundels of St Mary’s or the infant Christ in All Saints’, in each of our churches the expectant visitor is drawn to the lighted windows.
Not for nothing was the medieval church famed for its iridescent use of light to tell the stories of salvation. But they understood that the depths of these truths were given a luminosity and further reality when light was shone through images of them. I always remember sitting in All Saints for Evensong as a student at the college. At a certain time of the year, when the light was low, the colours of the glass at Cuddesdon would be projected onto the stone and flicker as small patches of light. In this post Enlightenment age we might like to think that we have defeated all sensational superstition with rational enquiry, but the medieval mystical aesthetic still lingers in our churches today pointing us to a more unknowable realm of encounter.
The artist Thomas Denny realises this power of light to transfigure and reveal depths to truths we have as yet to perceive in his famous Transfiguration window at Durham Cathedral. It shows the story of our gospel reading this morning but rather than depicting the narrative his art seeks to express the meaning of this remarkable event in Jesus’ life on an emotional level.
When you first approach this window it is more like an encounter with light itself, the light of the transfigured Christ. Shapes, forms and figures are subsumed under an overwhelming experience of colour: golds, ambers, blues, whites, radiance, light. It is only when your eyes have begun to adjust themselves to the light when in the words of William Blake, we have begun to ‘bear the beams of love’ that shapes and figures begin to emerge. Right at the top is an image of Christ, Christ holding his arms out in welcome and within the welcoming Christ is a smaller Christ, arms outstretched on the cross, head hanging down, defeated. From this images flows a brilliance of white light which defines everything else. There are folk from history: St Cuthbert with a golden cliff rearing up behind him, seagulls encircling and around him the sea, liquid gold in a magical transfiguring evening light. Michael Ramsey, to whom the window is dedicated, is there with his unmistakable shock of white, sticking-out hair, gazing up intently at the light and Durham Cathedral itself, shimmering as a new heavenly Jerusalem. The window as a whole is an image of the love of God and the way it transfigures, transforms the whole world.
Like the transfigured Christ on the mountain top, Thomas Denny gives us a glimpse of a vision of the world suffused and transformed by the light of Christ. For Edwin Muir in his poem Transfiguration this is a world which has been reborn, a new Eden, where all the painful, horrible things that mar our ability to see Christ’s loving light are cleansed and healed. He writes:
So from the ground we felt that virtue branch
Through all our veins till we were whole, our wrists
As fresh and pure as water from a well,
Our hands made new to handle holy things,
The source of all our seeing rinsed and cleansed
Till earth and light and water entering there
Gave back to us the clear unfallen world.
This is a vision of the world as it could be, suffused with light and glory. For a moment the veil is drawn aside and we see the world as God sees it, with all its depth of glory and beauty, when we recognise what Gerald Manley Hopkins calls that ‘dearest freshness deep down things’.
However both Muir and Denny are not delusional or escapist. Their works of art are deeply aware of the darkness in our world. In the window there are moving scenes at the bottom and around the edges of the brokenness and darkness of our world: a miner killed in a pit accident, a harrowing of hell, two thirds of the way down, a couple running away, trying to flee from the light. In Muir’s poem he questions which is more real, the world of radiant vision or the forlorn earth of exile, the prisoner, those who ‘hide within the labyrinth of their loneliness’:
If it had lasted but another moment
It might have held for ever! But the world
Rolled back into its place, and we are here,
And all that radiant kingdom lies forlorn,
As if it had never stirred.
After the radiance of the epiphany this week we come back to earth with a bump, to a world where the vision is hidden within what we often call the ‘real’ world with all its messiness, meaninglessness and meagreness. Life is a complicated mixture of beauty and mess, the glorious and the mundane, the heartstoppingly beautiful and heartbreakingly tragic, the light and the dark together.
As a friend once said to me, we cannot always dwell on the heights of Mt Tabor. We cannot pin down the vision or incarcerate it in a dwelling as Peter longs to do, it is fleeting, a gift, like a shaft of light on a stone. But we can hold the vision in our hearts and live by it, trusting that the light does shine even when we cannot feel it or see it. As the words inscribed on a wall of a cellar in Cologne where Jews hid from the Nazis so powerfully states:
I believe in the sun even when it is not shining
I believe in love where feeling is not.
I believe in God even if he is silent.
It is this truth that we are invited to hold onto as we enter Lent, the vision that for us the cross is not a moment of disaster and despair but a further glimpse of the transfiguring light of Christ even within the darkness of this world. May we this Lent enter more deeply into this truth so it may become our reality and the light by which we may walk and live by. Amen.