Matthew 17 .1– 9
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC
February 26, 2017
The season of Epiphany opens with light: the magi seeing the brilliant star in the dark night sky that leads them to Jesus. And today it ends with light, as well, as Jesus is robed in radiance.
We follow the star throughout the season of Epiphany, and if you think about the hymns we often sing during this season, many have something to do with light: “Arise, Your Light Is Come,” “Jesus, the Light of the World,” “Many Are the Light Beams,” “O Radiant Christ, Incarnate Word.”
Perhaps, it’s because of the short days and long winter nights in the northern hemisphere at this time of year, but there seems to be a cycle of lightness and darkness in the seasons of the church year. As the days get longer in the spring, we enter the season of Lent, which culminates with the Office of Tenebrae (or shadows) on Maundy Thursday. And after the crucifixion on Good Friday, the risen Christ emerges again in the brightness of Easter Sunday.
We go through cycles in our own culture as well: seasons of light and seasons of shadow. It is what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last week called the great pendulum of American political culture, which swings back when it veers too far in either direction. But I diverge from the metaphor of light…
There are other ways in which we identify light as the image of divine presence or of divine favor. The halo that we often see in artistic representations of holy people are clearly a representation of the light that emanates within them. If your someone who believes in auras, the halo can be a visible reality.
Because I’m a visual learner, and I know some of you are, too, I’ve prepared a few slides of artistic representations of the Transfiguration…described in today’s text as Jesus’ face shining like the sun and “his clothes became dazzling white. So, I’d invite you just to look at these images and try to be observant of the light in these different paintings. [LIGHTS OFF]
The first three images are Orthodox icons from Russia and Greece and Byzantium from the 13th through 16th centuries. One of the things you’ll notice in icons is the use of gold leaf to project light, and you can see Jesus surrounded by a circle of light, as well as the prominent halos of all three figures: Moses, Jesus, and Elijah:
The second image shows the circle of light and actual beams projecting out from the center, and there almost seem to be spotlights illuminating Jesus. And if we could see the gilding on this icon, it would seem even more radiant.
You’ll notice in several of these images from the medieval period that Jesus is surrounded by an almond-shape frame called a mandorla (Italian for almond).
Duccio was a 14th century artist born in Siena, and was the most influential Italian artist of his day. This painting has the feel of an Orthodox icon with its extensive use of light, halos, and even the positioning of Jesus’ right hand with two fingers extended in the position of teaching.
This fresco by Fra Angelico, who was both a Dominican and a brilliant painter, adorns one of the monastic cells at the monastery of San Marco in Florence. Look at how Moses and Elijah seem to be peeking in at Jesus from some other dimension. And there is also a mandorla, which seems like the source of light.
You may know this painting by Raphael, which is in the Vatican, and if you look at where the light is, again, it comes from the cloud of divinity behind Jesus and it’s blinding the disciples, who are there on the mountaintop. It’s strange, though, because this one seems to blend the transfiguration with the ascension of Jesus…or the antigravity field stopped working, because Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are airborne.
This is an altar painting in Venice by Titian, who was known for painting with light and there is radiance all over Jesus and behind him. Look at the contrasting darkness in this painting.
Images of the Transfiguration didn’t stop in the Renaissance. This one is by the 19th c. French painter, James Tissot Look at where the light is in this image. Jesus is wearing dazzling white, but the great source of light is no longer behind Jesus…it IS Jesus.
In this modern representation of the Transfiguration from Cameroon, there is a swirling cloud of divine light surrounding Jesus. And it’s interesting that Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are all portrayed as Africans. So, the hue of our skin has nothing to do with the way light is identified as divinity.
This transfiguration by Cornelius Monsma is almost abstract, and maybe that is one of the fundamental ways we experience Christ…as an abstraction.
So, those are the visual identifications with light. Some of the most amazing passages of scripture also have to do with light. The Psalms have great images: “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” (Psalm 27) And Isaiah’s prophecy: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” And in the gospels, Luke and John tend to use the most light imagery.
John’s prologue tells us that “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” And the gospel writer tells us that John the baptizer “was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light which enlightens everyone.” And John’s portrayal of Jesus includes the great statement, “I am the light of the world.”
So, why am I telling you this? Why does it matter if light is used frequently to portray the presence of God?
For me, God is less anthropomorphic and more like a source of energy. One of my favorite metaphors for God is The Force. (In fact, you saw an image from the end of The Return of the Jedi, there is a scene in which three Jedi masters, Anakin Skywalker, Obi-wan Kenobi, and Yoda, all appear in spirit form, bathed in light. Sounds like the Transfiguration to me.)
That may sounds kind of strange to you, but light is energy.
Photons are elementary particles and the basic unit of light.
And it’s the sense of the mystery of God that we get in this image that makes it so rich. Perhaps for you, different images – more concrete images – of God work well. But there may be some among us who don’t relate as well to Mother or Father, who need a sense of God as being more elemental, more pervasive, and less describable or identifiable with an anthropomorphic image.
Too often we put God in a box…a box that we define. Even the name “God” over-defines the reality of the divine.
So, where do we connect with this fairly abstract notion of God? How do we have a relationship with light or energy or the Force? There are times in our lives when we seek mystery and other seasons of our lives when we find a need for more intimate human connection with the divine – the times when Mother or Father or she or he are more congruent with our experience of the sacred than “it.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our language had a special pronoun for the divine that could embody both the immanent relationship of parent and the transcendent mystery of light?
Sister Joan Chittister, one of the wisest voices of Roman Catholicism today, says that “Our role in life is to bring the light of our own souls to the dim places around us.” And if we see that we
are created in God’s image, we have the flicker of divine light within us.
“There two ways of spreading light,” wrote Edith Wharton, “To be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” And when we, as the church, are at our best, we illumine the way for each other and we reflect the light of God, holding a mirror to shine the light in the shadowy corners of each other’s lives.
So, how does this play out in your experience? Are there times in your life when you have been the recipient of light from another person? Are there moments when your light has brightened the life of another? In these days when our society is in the depths of political anxiety, how might we be a beacon for one another?
And on a larger scale, how can Plymouth be a beacon of hope for the community?
May we, all of us, use the light we’ve been given to illumine the path for each other and for all God’s people. To close, let me share with you a prayer I learned from Marcus Borg more than a few years ago…it’s one of the prayers I say every morning: Lord Jesus Christ, You are the light of the world, fill our minds with your peace, and our hearts with your love.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.