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The Rector: Our lives transfigured

Note: This sermon uses Richard Dehmel’s poem ‘Transfigured Night’, along with Arnold Schoenberg’s chamber work for strings of the same name, as a means of reflecting on Mark’s account of the Transfiguration of Jesus.  The text below provides a link to a translation of the poem and allows you to listen to the extracts of music that were used when the sermon was preached.

15 February 2015, Sunday next before Lent
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Revd Simon Cowling
2 Corinthians 4. 1-6; Mark 9. 2-9

Two people walk through a bare, cold wood. The opening line of Richard Dehmel’s poem ‘Verklärte Nacht‘ or Transfigured Night.   The poet describes the journey of a man and a woman through a bleak landscape, the moon (racing) over tall oaks, the black jagged tips of the trees reaching up to the moonlight. Here is how the composer Arnold Schoenberg responds to the poet’s opening lines:

You can hear the relevant passage by clicking on this extract.

The woman is full of self-reproach. Her desire for a child had led her into a brief relationship with a stranger. Now she has met a man she truly loves and is in despair that her unborn child will cause him to abandon her. But as the man walks beside her in the wood his words are of reassurance, not condemnation. See how brightly the universe is gleaming!’, he says; there is a glow of inner warmth between them which will, he tells her, ‘transfigure’ her guilt into a happiness that is shared by them both. The composer’s response comes in a final section full of joy and a lightness of touch, as the bleak minor mode of the opening music is transformed into a musical coda suffused with the lovers’ joy. The cold and forbidding night has itself been transfigured, and the music matches the poem’s final line: Two people walk through the lofty, bright night. We’ll hear some of that music at the end of my sermon.

The music of Arnold Schoenberg, and the poem ‘Verklärte Nacht’, Transfigured Night  by Richard Dehmel on which the music is based, are of course worlds away, culturally speaking,  from the pages of the New Testament. But I want to explore Mark’s account of the Transfiguration of Jesus that we heard a moment ago through a key theme of the poem which I believe to be present in our Gospel reading too: redemption, a word which we might define as ‘deliverance from the despair brought about by wrongdoing’.  At the beginning of Dehmel’s poem the woman is overwhelmed by despair at her sinfulness, believing that it has placed her beyond the love of the one who now walks beside her. Yet by the end of the poem that despair has been transfigured by the love of the man she feels she has betrayed; and the dark wood through which the man and the woman continue to walk, though ostensibly unchanged, has been transfigured too. The woman’s world, emotional, spiritual and even physical, is now charged with an intense joy. She has, we might say, been redeemed by love.

Unlike Mathew, Luke, and John, the ending of St Mark’s Gospel – at least as most scholars now accept it – has no resurrection appearance, no neat ending. Some of those same scholars have wondered if the account of Jesus’s Transfiguration on the high mountain is, in fact, really a resurrection appearance which has been repositioned. There are problems with this theory – not least that Matthew and Luke have their own accounts of the Transfiguration but have resurrection appearances as well. Then there are others who think that the Transfiguration, rather than looking forward to the Resurrection, may be looking forward to a far more distant future – to the time when Jesus will come again in glory at the end of the age. This would help to explain some of the language used by the Gospel writers about the change in Jesus’s appearance, which echoes language found elsewhere in scripture about the end times. It also helps us to understand the presence of Moses and Elijah: they are links between the here and now of our human history and the ‘yet to be’ of God’s eternity; they are glimpses of a future that we can only see at the moment, as St Paul has it, ‘in a mirror, dimly’.

So what does all this have to do with redemption, with ‘deliverance from the despair brought about by wrongdoing’? Remember that Mark, like all the Evangelists, was writing between the resurrection and the second coming of Jesus. In this limited sense, at least, we inhabit the same space that Mark did, two thousand years ago. Like the followers of Jesus in the time after his ascension, we wait in anticipation of that second coming as those who believe themselves already to be redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus. But there are times when we find it hard to give spiritual assent to this intellectual belief.  Like the woman walking in the cold dark wood burdened by her sense of sin, we sometimes despair, we sometimes stumble, and we sometimes feel burdened. It is to this condition that the transfigured Jesus offers reassurance from the mountain top; the Christ, to whom the voice from heaven commands us to listen, comes to us as one who has suffered and died; and he comes to us as one who has not only suffered and died but also as one who has been raised from death; and he comes to us as one who has not only suffered, died, and been raised, but also as one who assures us in his transfigured glory that our redemption is more than a moment in time, it is an eternal gift from the heart of God. As eternity bleeds briefly into time on the mountain top the transfigured Christ appears to the disciples, and to us, as he will be at the end of the age, triumphant yet grace-filled. The music of our lives is transformed and we know that we are truly redeemed.

You can hear the relevant passage by clicking on this extract.

[ You can find a full recording of the work here.]