Sermon August 5, 2018

Each of us has our own identity. Some times we choose our own identity and other times it is thrust upon us when people call us names. And we are often identified in several different ways. I am a husband and a father and a grandfather. I am also a priest, a designation that was given to me when I was ordained on January 19, 2014. When I am asked, what should I call you? I respond call me Bob or Father Bob for that is how I identify myself. The identity that we choose is important for ourselves and for others. As we celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration, I have asked Bill Robinson to come and explain the icon which he wrote and which first appeared in this church the day before my ordination. That was special. As Bill shares the story of the icon and how it helps us to understand the Transfiguration, I would ask you to keep in mind that this feast is one way that we identify Jesus. I also ask you to consider what it means to you to be identified as a follower of Jesus.   

Icon of the Feast of the Transfiguration by Br. Bill

 To better understand the Icon of the Transfiguration, it might be helpful for us to have a short understanding of the nature of an “icon”, and why this particular graphic format is different from other types of religious artwork.

The word “Icon” is simply the Greek word for image, and “icons” consist of symbolic images of Jesus, Mary, all of the canonized Saints and, occasionally, the feasts and events of the church year (such as The Feast of the Transfiguration).   They are usually painted on wood, or fresco, or done in mosaic, and they always illustrate portions of scripture. Icons are regarded by the major liturgical churches as “graphic scripture”. Like scripture, icons are said to be written rather than painted. By interacting with icons in prayer and contemplation, icons can become windows and doorways to a spiritual connection that one might not otherwise experience.   This is similar to the icons on phones and computers. Interact with these icons by clicking, rather than prayer, and whole programs open up!

The three synoptic Gospels tell us that Jesus took the three apostles, James, Peter, and John “the beloved” and led them up a high mountain. There, as Matthew tells us, he was “transfigured into blinding light; both his face and clothing changing before their eyes”. Mark, in his Gospel, writes that “His face shown like the sun, and His clothes became dazzling white.” And again, Mark says that his clothes were “such that no one on earth could bleach them”.

In today’s Gospel, Luke tells us that the transfiguration took place while Jesus was praying. It is this comment that is depicted in this icon, where Jesus is raising His hands in prayer. Luke says, “While He was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and His clothes became dazzling white.” Then, before the eyes of the apostles, appeared the Old Testament prophets Moses and Elijah talking to Jesus. Then, if that was not already enough, a voice came out of a cloud and said, “This is my Son, the beloved. In today’s Epistle, written near the end of his life, Peter states “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed.”

The icon we are discussing today is a symbolic representation of the event described in the Gospels. The composition of this icon follows a strictly symmetrical scheme. It shows a stylized mountain landscape, characterized by a central peak that is flanked by two lesser peaks. Jesus stands (or almost floats) on the central peak. He is clothed in a white and gold robe that appears to have dazzling light coming from within it. This is not sunlight. It is what students of theology refer to as the “uncreated light of God”-- a source of light, unlike sunlight or chemical light or electrical light that appears to come right out of darkness. Furthermore, He is surrounded by a gold and red boat-shaped image known as a “mandorla—the ancient symbol of the creator God. At Jesus’ feet is a round medallion showing an Agnes Dei—the Lamb of God, which is one of the earliest symbols for our Lord

Jesus is flanked by the two prophets. Moses is on His left (your right as you look at it), and Elijah on His right, each standing on his own peak. The image of Jesus is larger than the two prophets. This follows an iconic convention, which calls for the most important figure to be the biggest. Moses carries the tablets representative of the Law, and Elijah wears the “mantle of prophesy” that he passed on to Elisha before ascending to Heaven in the chariot of fire. Elijah’s mantle, or cloak, is described in the Old Testament, and in the icon it is shown as somewhat ratty. The same cloak is depicted in one of the stained glass panels at the back of our own church!

The three medallions at the bottom of the icon represent James, Peter, and John. Normally, the three apostles are shown as figures rather than symbols, but the round shape of this icon did not permit that design. The medallions, however, are accurate copies of the symbolic representations of these apostles that also appear in the stained glass windows at the back of our church. These designs have been a part of this church since its construction. So, even though the icon is new to this church, the symbols have design continuity with our whole history. James is symbolized by the three shells. After his martyrdom in the first century, James’ remains were moved to the village of Compostela in NW Spain, and the cockleshell became the symbol worn by pilgrims to his tomb. Peter is symbolized by the crossed keys. Jesus told him: “I give you the keys to my kingdom. James’ brother, John, is identified by the serpent in the chalice, which symbolizes his willingness to drink from the same cup as Jesus, and which leads to his death.

The Latin word for transfiguration, transfiguratio, means, “to be changed to another form”. The Greek word is metamorpheos and has much the same meaning. The Transfiguration, therefore, is a revelation of Christ’s divine nature, a manifestation of the Trinity, and a confirmation of the continuity between the Old and the New Testaments. This is shown symbolically by all of the white and gold lines that crisscross the image of Jesus and seem to come from within Him, rather than from an external source. This light is the central feature of this icon and was mentioned earlier as the uncreated light of God. It is a supernatural light with transforming power that has its source in God’s own being. It is the light that Jesus Himself speaks of in John’s Gospel when He says “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” As Jesus becomes that light, his true nature is revealed. As Paul says in his letter to the Colossians, “For in Him the whole fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily.

Today’s Gospel account of the Transfiguration also serves as a very early recognition of the Trinity. The disciples hear the voice the Father, they see the Son, and they were enveloped by the Holy Spirit in the brilliance of the uncreated light. They also witnessed Moses and Elijah, who represented the “Law and Prophets”, and who confirmed that Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophesies of the Old Testament. Thus, the God they had served so faithfully for so long, without actually seeing, could now be seen and spoken to face to face. Here, in the blinding light on the mountain of the Transfiguration, prophets and the disciples were able to witness God’s personified radiance directly. 

Fr. Bob speaking again

Bill has shared with you the images of the Transfiguration. The Icon is a great example of what we see in our minds when we imagine the Transfiguration of Jesus. I would ask you to think about what we hear. In this passage, God the Father speaks and says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

 It is not the first time in Luke’s gospel that we have heard God speak about Jesus. God did so when Jesus was baptized when we heard God say, “‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

This sounds different to me. At his baptism, God spoke to Jesus, encouraging him to begin his public ministry. At the Transfiguration, God spoke to the apostles and through them God speaks to us. Listen to him. Jesus is the Son of God, Jesus is God. Jesus told us who God is and what God expects of us. Jesus is the way to help us understand God and to hear God’s wishes.

It is so easy for our modern day minds to hear this because we already know that Jesus is God. But, I ask you to remember the gospel stories that come before this one so that you might understand the confusion that existed about who Jesus was.

We followed Jesus as he healed the daughter of the leader of the synagogue and the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years. Jesus told everyone this is no big deal, don’t tell anyone what happened. Did they ask who this Jesus is?

Jesus sent the apostles out to evangelize giving them power over demons and the ability to cure diseases. Did Jesus have the authority to do this? We heard Herod speak as he wondered about Jesus. Is this John the Baptist who has come back to life? Is it Elijah? Is this a prophet? Jesus fed the five thousand people with a few loaves and fish. People wanted to make him a king.

Many questions and suggestions surrounded the identity of Jesus. All these questions are answered by the Transfiguration. Jesus is God’s Son. Jesus is God. It is his identity. As I said, none of this is a surprise to us.   I just ask you to think about your identity in the context of the Transfiguration. I wish to be identified as a follower of Jesus, a disciple. I wish to be changed forever, to be transformed, to live into the name of our church. I wear a cross to say to everyone who I am. What does this change we seek mean?

On Friday, I went to the movies and I saw a preview for a new Transformer movie that will premier in December. It is called, Bumblebee. A young lady picks out a yellow Volkswagon beetle or bug and drives it home. She learns later that the car is really Bumblebee. The car is transformed into a massive robot that can handle any threat, any enemy and yet still have a caring personality.

We seek a change that allows us to focus on God and caring for our neighbor. We seek to be freed from the desires of the earth, desires for riches or fame or power and instead be dedicated to a life like Jesus led.

Have you ever had a special encounter with God? Whether your experience included images of a radiant Jesus or you heard the voice of God, I hope you can recall that time. I encourage you to ask God to continue to change you, to transform you in a way that you are willing to stand up and say, I am a follower of Jesus. I know who I am. I want to live my life for Jesus. Amen.

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  • Proverbs 15:23
    “A person finds joy in giving an apt reply— and how good is a timely word!”