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A Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany – Year B, RCL – February 1, 2009 The Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square – The Rev. Diana Carroll “He was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white.” In the name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen. In the children’s choir at the church where I grew up, the choir director taught us a little rhyme to help us remember the seasons of the church year. It went like this: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent. Easter (Alleluia!) and a Pentecost event. This proved to be a very helpful mnemonic device, but it may also have contributed to my slight obsession, as an adult, with our church’s liturgical calendar. So please feel free to blame my choir director for the fact that I’m going to begin this sermon with a little commentary on this particular moment in the liturgical year. Today, as you can see from the front of your service leaflet, is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. At first glance, this doesn’t seem like an especially important day. The altar hangings and vestments are green, the color of “ordinary time.” The service is much the same as it has been for the past several weeks. But there is more going on today than meets the eye. As the word “Last” implies, this Sunday marks the end of one part of our church year and the beginning of another. Today, Epiphany draws to a close, and this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, we begin the season of Lent. I didn’t know this when my choir director taught me the rhyme, but Epiphany is not technically a season, the way that Lent and Advent and Easter are. Epiphany itself is just one day – January 6 – the day we celebrate the coming of the magi to see the infant Jesus. And the Sundays after the Epiphany are really just in-between time, “ordinary time.” But in practice, we have come to see this time after Epiphany as its own season, a season characterized by the stories of Christ’s manifestation on earth. It begins with Epiphany itself, moves to the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan river, then goes through various signs and healings, leading up to the story that we heard today: the story of the transfiguration. This story is always read on the Last Sunday of the Epiphany, because in each of the gospels where it appears, the transfiguration is a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. From this point onward, Jesus begins to speak openly of the fate that awaits him in Jerusalem at the hands of the civil and religious authorities. After this, his journey turns slowly but steadily in the direction of Calvary. And so for us, this Sunday when we remember the transfiguration is the hinge, the turning point, in the liturgical year. Today, we turn from looking back to the Incarnation and Christmas, and instead we begin to look ahead: to Jerusalem, to the cross and to the empty tomb. So much for my commentary on the liturgical calendar. As you probably know, there is something else going on this weekend which—although it has its roots in the liturgical year—is 1 considerably less liturgical in nature. These next few days before Ash Wednesday are the culmination of the Carnival season, a time of celebration and revelry and general festivity in many parts of the world. Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Fasching in Munich, Carnevale in Venice. All over the world, people are throwing one last party before Lent begins. The customs may vary from place to place, but all of these festivals share a common tradition of encouraging people to wear costumes and masks. Part of the fun of Carnival is that it is a chance for people to be something that they are not, to hide themselves behind a mask, to try on another identity just for a little while. I happen to be one of those people who really enjoys dressing up in costume. I also happen to own a Mardi Gras mask that I was given as a child, and so I was very, very tempted to bring my mask with me today and incorporate it into the sermon as a visual aide. But the more I thought about today’s gospel and the story of the transfiguration, the more I realized that a mask would be exactly the wrong image for this day. If costumes and masks are about appearing to be something that you’re not, what is going on in today’s gospel reading is the exact opposite. When Jesus’ appearance was changed on the mountain, it was not the kind of change that comes from putting on a costume or a mask. Far from hiding his identity, Jesus’ strange and dazzling appearance revealed who he really was: The Son of God. The Beloved. It was almost as though he had taken off a mask and allowed the glory of God to shine through. But in order to fully grasp what is going on in this story, we need to back up a little. You might have noticed that today’s reading from Mark chapter 9 begins with the words “Six days later.” It kind of begs the question, doesn’t it: “Six days later than what?” What was it that happened six days before the events that are described here, and why does it matter? To find out, we need to go back to Mark chapter 8 (which, by a strange convergence of the Sunday lectionary with the weekday lectionary, was the gospel reading for the 12:15 Eucharist this past Thursday.) In Mark 8, Jesus asks the disciples who people say that he is, and they reply, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” Then he asks, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter boldly confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one. Six days later, up on a mountain, Peter and James and John are able to see with their own eyes (and hear with their own ears) what they had already come to believe in their hearts about their teacher. For them, the transfiguration was a visual (and auditory) confirmation of what Peter had declared. The dazzling white robe, the appearance of Elijah and Moses, the voice from the cloud… These were not just special effects to make Jesus look good. They were an external expression of Jesus’ true inner nature. No masks or costumes needed. In the second letter to the Corinthians, Paul write that Jesus “is the image of God.” With these words, he is pointing toward the mystery that when we look at Jesus, we somehow see God. Paul goes on to say, “It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” That verse should sound familiar to many of us. During the season of Epiphany, it is incorporated into the beginning of the eucharistic prayer. Since early January, we have been 2 giving thanks to God with these words. As it was for the disciples, so it is for us. When we look at the face of Jesus, we can see the glory of God. But it is not enough for us simply to see God’s glory in Christ. As today’s collect reminded us, we are being changed into the likeness of Christ, “from glory to glory.” We, too, are being transfigured, little by little, so that those around us (and yes we ourselves) can come to see God’s glory at work in us. This Wednesday, we will all be invited, in the words of the Ash Wednesday service, to the “observance of a Holy Lent.” As we enter this season of reflection and self-examination, how will we begin to set aside our masks and reveal who we truly are: beloved children of God, called to let the glory of God shine through us. AMEN. 3
"1 A Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany – Year B_ RCL "