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The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

Fr. David Curry

Christ Church, Windsor, Nova Scotia, August 7 AD 2005

“Be ye transformed by the renewing of your minds”


Is it just our minds that are to be transformed?  What about our bodies?  What about our souls?  What Paul has in mind here, I think, includes all that belongs to the understanding of our humanity, a point which is eloquently, if not uniquely captured by Dante’s invention of a word in Italian for what Paul, I think, means – trasumanar“transhumanised”.  Christianity seeks the transformation of the whole of our humanity, our entire being made adequate to the life of God.  It is especially the project of the Trinity season which seeks the deeper realization of the life of Christ in us.  “By the grace of God I am what I am”, Paul says, and may we say it as well, that “his grace was not bestowed upon [us] in vain”.


But it means our paying attention to the lessons belonging to the quality of our life in Christ.  “Hear ye him.”  There is, it seems to me, a wonderful coincidence of Providence at work in the close conjunction of these readings for The 11th Sunday after Trinity and The Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ yesterday.  The humble publican who seems to “stand afar off, not lift[ing] up so much as his eyes unto heaven” is brought near, exalted or raised up, as it were, into the presence of God in his truth and righteousness.  The proud Pharisee, on the other hand, stands and, as we are told pointedly, “prayed thus with himself”, with words that exalt himself over and against the publican.  Such self-exaltation, such self-promotion, we might say, ultimately has the opposite effect of placing us far from the things of God.  It negates the power and purpose of prayer which seeks our transformation by being open to the presence of God in his word and will for us in our lives, the very thing that prayer seeks.  Prayer seeks our transformation.


It does so, inescapably, by working on our minds but with a view to the whole of our being.  The Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ signals that intent clearly and wonderfully.  Like the Ascension of Christ, it speaks to “the exaltation of our humanity” which, like the Ascension, is realized first and foremost in Christ and only so in us by his grace.  That we should have this feast in the late summer, in the sultry heat of August, in the time of the maturing of the crops and the early days of harvest is quite suggestive.  Somehow it speaks to what is wanted in our spiritual lives, lives which embrace all of the things of nature and our humanity.


It is about a vision.  Peter and James and John are the witnesses to Christ transfigured before them.  The details of this mountain-top scene are intriguing and significant.  First and foremost, the vision is Trinitarian.  As at the Baptism of Christ, we hear the Father’s voice, we see the Son, and the Spirit, too, is almost tangibly present; there as a descending dove, here as the Shekinah, the cloud of glory that envelopes Jesus and which dazzles the disciples.  Included in the vision, too, are the Old Testament figures of Moses and Elijah who are seen talking to Jesus.


It is a telling image of the idea of the Old Covenant in relation to the New.  And it moves Peter, at least, to say that “it is good to be here”.  Surely it is, if we are truly open to the meaning of what is being said and done.  Peter goes on, however, to get it partly right and partly wrong, much like ourselves, I suppose.  “Let us build three tents”, tabernacles, he says, thinking of the Old Testament scenes of the giving of the Law, thinking that this is a repeat of such epiphanies of the divine will for Israel.  Wrong.  In the Transfiguration of Christ, we are given to see what we shall be.  We are given to see the glorification of our humanity, a vision, in other words, of our end in God.


As Augustine so wonderfully puts it in the exalted language of adoration:


We shall rest and we shall see,

We shall see and we shall love,

We shall love and we shall praise,

Behold what shall be in the end that shall not end.


The Transfiguration of Christ affords us a vision of our humanity transformed, a vision of our end in glory.  But the point of access is the grace of prayer, the humility which is open to the workings of divine grace in us without which we remain very far from God.  There is the wonderful paradox – the dialectic of glory, if you will.  We can only be raised up by being humble.


But what do we mean by humility?  In the therapeutic culture of contemporary life, considerable emphasis is placed on self-esteem, on how people feel about themselves and on the demand for people to fulfill themselves, usually in material and sensual terms.  Humility would appear to be the exact opposite.  Like the picture of the Publican who “smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner”, being humble is associated with beating up on ourselves, on poor self-esteem, on a view of ourselves as sinners.


This is to misunderstand entirely the meaning of humility.  Our openness to the truth and the mystery of God is the truth of our humanity.  It actually signifies a kind of magnanimity – being great-souled - precisely because, like Mary in her song the Magnificat, we are open to the great things of God in affirmation of his Word and Will.  “Be it unto me according to thy Word” is not about groveling on the ground.  Knowing ourselves as sinners is truth leading to salvation.


But the paradox is even greater.  It comes out in the story of the Transfiguration of Christ.  As a vision of our humanity transformed in Christ, the Transfiguration is really part and parcel of the awesome humility of God.  God reaches down to us and enters into the wounded and broken fabric of our humanity in the Word made flesh.  The Transfiguration cannot hide the reality of the Cross and Passion; indeed, it prefigures the glory of the Passion, a glory made known in the hideous spectacle of our sins made visible in the crucified Christ.  “Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead”, Jesus says.  The Passion is the greater humility, we might say, the humility of God for the sake of our glory.  But again, as Augustine observes, “So deep has human pride sunk us that only divine humility can raise us”.


“Only divine humility can raise us.”  Prayer is about our wanting that divine humility to raise us. Prayer signifies our will for something more than the status quo of our daily lives, our lives of prejudice and jealousy, our lives of pride and self-promotion, our lives of deceit and judgment, our lives of complacency about ourselves and disregard of the needs of others; in short, our lives of despair are really like the prayer of the Pharisee.  We are only talking to ourselves because we don’t think that anyone, namely, God, is really there.  There is only ourselves.


Isn’t that the real problem in the contemporary church and in some contemporary liturgies?  Prayers that are not prayers but statements about ourselves?  Prayers that are ambiguous and confused about the presence of God and about the truth of God in his Word proclaimed in the witness of the Scriptures?  It is as if we can no longer think or pray the Scriptures, as if we can no longer think or pray to God.  “Faith”, as Robert Louis Wilken puts it “is a world of discourse that comes to us in language of a particular sort”, the language of Scripture, what Augustine calls “the Lord’s style of language, “in dominico eloquio”.  At the Transfiguration, Christ is seen conversing with Moses and Elijah, the representatives of Law and Prophecy in the testimony of the Old Testament.  The idea is that somehow those things are connected to the reality of Christ, the Word and Son of the Father in the anointing of the Spirit.  Somehow we are meant to think the vision.  “Hear ye him”, listen to the Son, our heavenly Father tells us.


To think it is to live it.  In lives of prayer and humble service, not presuming ourselves to be better or worse than we are, but by a genuine seeking of the will of God through the habits and disciplines of prayer and worship, we learn to think it so as to begin to live it.


Humility is the counter to our pride and results in the true exaltation of our humanity, “that we, being purified and strengthened by thy grace, may be transformed into his likeness from glory to glory”.  We are granted a vision of glory.   True prayer is about our openness to that glory without which we remain buried in ourselves, and mired in the muck of our own self-righteousness.  In Christ, and most wonderfully in his Transfiguration, we are granted a vision of what we shall be but only if we listen to him so that we may “be transformed by the renewing of our minds”.  Then shall we be exalted.