Thursday, August 6, 2015

Not forgetting the special place - a Transfiguration homily

This wonderful homily was preached for the Feast of the Transfiguration 2010 by Father Alexander Tefft at St Botolph's Antiochian Orthodox Church (the parish founded by the late Fr Michael Harper), meeting at St. Botolph's Church Bishopsgate, London, UK.

'Tell no one the vision, until the Son of man is raised from the dead'. (Matthew 17.9)

Did you ever have a favourite place as a child? A magical place, where everything was possible? A place where you ran and hid from grown-ups who did not have the eyes to see or the ears to hear? Maybe a small spot in the garden, by a pool surrounded by the trees and bushes. Maybe a clearing in the woods, a tree house high up in the branches. Maybe a hilltop, where you could see the lights of the town or the fields spreading out to the horizon. If you grew up in the city, as I did, maybe your special place was only a little walk-in closet up in the attic where you could be alone: only yourself - and God. An only child, as I was, always finds special places. In all your lonely hours, you make your own company. Friends step out of fairy stories or off the pages of history. Sometimes, a doll or a teddy bear is the only one who listens to your secret thoughts. Your toys listen, but God hears. In those secret moments, in that special place, a veil is lifted. Things are not as they appear. You catch a vision that no one else can see. At most, only two or three of your closest friends can ever enter the sacred space. You glimpse what life truly is, in a place where you are free to be yourself.

When you grow up, they make you forget your special place. They shame you, twist and mould your heart where everything once was possible - until, at last, you fit in to what society calls 'real' life. Your horizon recedes. You learn how to survive and forget how to live. Life becomes conventional and respectable. Go to school, then on to university and when you get out - then what? A job, a spouse or a live-in partner, two or three children and a house in the suburbs. All the veils that we call 'real life'. You live in a little box that our society assigns you; you live unhappily ever after. Why? Because something inside that you cannot repress still whispers: 'there is more to life than this!' What did you give up in fitting in? Your sense of wonder. You let go the adventure; you forgot the vision. A still, small voice that once whispered to you in the garden, or the clearing in the woods, or the closet up in the attic. The voice of God that spoke to you in your special place - in words that only you, and two or three friends, could hear. You learned to adjust to what they call 'real' life, where there is no place for wonder - and no place for God.

'Surely', they will tell you, 'there's a place for God. It's called "church". You don't have to see visions to go to church. Happy banners, hymns, organ music, ladies in pink hats: isn't that enough "God" for you?' A headline in a Toronto newspaper once read: 'Going to church can help teach children our values'. Values! So that's what we mean by 'God'. Now that the old dogmas and rituals are thrown out, we have 'values'. Hard work, clean living. That is what Christianity is all about. You do not need visions, just plain common sense. A practical Gospel, well within the reach of the most ordinary person. What need for candles, vestments, incense, monasteries? Tell those monks and nuns to go out and get real jobs! A king did as much five centuries ago, when he closed the monasteries: when he replaced 'visions' with 'real' life. Fit into real life! Fit in, and grow up!

Some of us refuse to fit in. Some still remember the monasteries. We never forgot that a job, a husband or wife, three children, a car in the garage, and a home in the suburbs is not necessarily real life at all. It may not be life at all - if you forget the vision. The vision that haunts you from your special place, where only you and two or three of your closest friends could ever go. An adventure, when the veil was lifted. When you were alone with yourself ... and God.

Today, our Lord Jesus Christ goes to his special place. To the top of a mountain, 'apart', away from the crowds. Away from jobs and spouses and little boxes and 'real' life. Does he take just anyone along with him? Only his three closest friends: Peter, James, John. An ordinary person has no eyes to see what he has in store. In his special place, he lifts the veil. The veil of Jesus, the carpenter's son. He shows them who he truly is. His face shines a million times more brilliant than the sun. His garments, as white as the light. On either side, Moses the law-giver and Elijah the prophet bow down to him. 'No one down below will believe it', Peter thinks. 'Better capture the vision: build a little box for each of them'. Just as he is thinking practically, a bright cloud overshadows him. A voice speaks in words that only the three disciples hear: 'This is no ordinary man. This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased. Listen to him'. No ordinary mind can take in what these three see on the mountaintop. No one can package it in a little box. They fall face down, down to the earth. What can you say, when you have seen Life himself stripped of every veil? 'Don't be afraid', he says. They look up - and no one but Jesus is there. Along the rocky path downhill, Jesus warns: 'Tell no one the vision. If you could not endure it, how can they? Ordinary people will build boxes around it. They will surround it with banners and ladies in pink hats. They will change the vision into "values" and call that "real life" - because they have forgotten what life is. Only tell them ... after the Son of Man is risen from the dead'. Tell them so that they will know: the Son of Man laid down his life freely, a life that no one takes from him. Tell them after he appears in a secret garden, outside an empty tomb hewn out of the rock. When the veil of his flesh is lifted, to reveal who he really is.

Beloved in Christ: everything that you knew as a child, every secret that you discovered in your secret special place, is confirmed here today. The face that you glimpsed in the veil of a garden pool. A clearing in the woods. A closet in the attic. The voice that spoke to you in tones that only you could understand. Christ our true God, transfigured here on the mount, does not change his face. He only unveils it. He lifts the veil of flesh, to show the Uncreated Light from eternity that is he himself. Just as a bunch of grapes only veils the Precious Blood; just as creation itself only veils the face of our Creator. But be sure to tell no unbelievers the vision. They are too 'grown-up' to believe. God the Father has hidden this vision from the wise and prudent - the commonsensical - and revealed it ... to babes. To a child, alone in his special place. To the nun alone in her cell. The Father has revealed it to those who do not 'fit in'.

Those for whom everything is still possible.


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