holy cross sermon for the last sunday after the epiphany, year a, march 2, 2014

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

One of my favorite poems is “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. It goes like this:

The WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed.  Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods the warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Hopkins says that the whole world is “charged with the gradeur of God”, but that despite the fact that God’s grandeur will “flame out, like shining from shook foil;” and despite the fact that it “gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil crushed,” nevertheless we human beings have a very difficult time seeing God beneath the veil of the world and its concerns. Generations, Hopkins says, “have trod, have trod, have trod” and everything is “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil.” The world now “wears man smudge and shares man’s smell,” and our feet cannot even feel the earth through our shoes, let alone feel beyond the veil of the earth’s createdness to the grandeur of its creator.

All of today’s readings speak about this veiling of God’s grandeur, or his glory, and they all speak of the lifting of the veil, albeit briefly, for the Lord’s servants and disciples. We heard from Exodus the story of the glory of the Lord settling on Mount Sinai while a cloud covered the mountain, and how the appearance of the Lord’s glory was like a devouring fire, and how the Lord called to Moses out of the cloud, and how Moses ascended the mountain and entered the cloud, and there spoke with the Lord.

In the Epistle, St. Peter reminds his hearers that he was an eyewitness of Christ’s majesty; that he heard the voice of the Majestic Glory, borne from heaven, bearing witness to Christ; that he was with Christ on the holy mountain.

And of course the Gospel reading relates the events mentioned by St. Peter – how Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John, how his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light; how Moses and Elijah appeared, speaking with Jesus; and how a “bright cloud” overshadowed the disciples, and how a voice from the cloud said “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to him,”; how they fell to the ground, filled with awe; and how Jesus “came and touched them”, saying “Rise, have no fear,”; and how “when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”

What are we to make of these instances of the manifestation of God’s grandeur to his servants and his disciples?  Firstly, I would point out that the Church always holds the story of the Transfiguration before us on the last Sunday before Lent. This story therefore is supposed somehow to help us to prepare for the Lenten time of fasting and self-denial, of penance and prayer.

Lent is a time when we willingly forego some concrete worldly blandishments, and redouble our efforts at prayer, and in doing so we strip away from our consciousness some of what keeps from our vision that “dearest freshness” which Hopkins says lives “deep down things”.  Lent is an opportunity for us willingly to enter the cloud with Peter, James, and John; and with them to fall on our faces in awe of the veiled Reality that has drawn near. In doing so, we make ourselves ready for the encounter with Christ-crucified, which lies at the end of our Lenten journey – “the departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem,” which was, as St. Luke tells us, the subject of Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah on the mountain.

Rowan Williams spoke of the hiddenness of God’s glory within the world as a consequence of the divestment of self which is of the essence of God the Son, and for which we must look if we would see him. He said:

“The hidden glory is not simply an arbitrary paradox or simply a consequence of the impossibility of God appearing as God in the created order: it is the outworking in finite form of the eternal self-yielding, self-hiding we might almost say, of the Son before the Father, the Son who does not will to be ‘visible’ except as the living act of the Father…..

“Seeing why Christian belief is credible is inseparable from that transformation of the self and its habitual ways of working that is prompted by grace; when you see that the gospel is believable, you do so because you have in the same moment believed, that is, trusted yourself to the presence that decentres and dispossesses the self. The judgement that the gospel is believable is an act of self-commitment…..

“[And in the end,] We are overtaken by the resurrection as the event that will not allow us to ignore the cross or mourn it or regard it as a past event of failure and shame.”

By entering into the cloud of Lent, by fasting, self-denial, prayer, and almsgiving, we equip ourselves with some degree of the self-dispossession that is the precondition of salvation, of seeing “no one but Jesus only” (Matthew 17.8) – which is the same thing as salvation. But to this end, we must willingly enter into the darkness of the cloud, and listen to the apostolic witness to Jesus. St. Peter says that we must “pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

This is echoed by Hopkins who acknowledges the darkness, but urges us to wait for the dawn:

And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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