I had to take the HOME (Fresh Expression of Church) service at St Albans last week and the theme was carnival. So, although it was a bit awkward we all were invited to get up and dance while the speakers blasted out ‘Dancing in the streets’. Later we got into groups for a discussion and I was talking about carnival being transgressive, about carnival breaking the normal rules of how we live so that we see life differently – but the person who was with me didn’t like my use of the word transgressive because he wanted carnival to be an out of the ordinary experience which then finished and we could return to our normal lives with fresh vision.
In a way we were both right. Our argument is true of a lot of aspects of how we live. We want experiences which change us, which transform us but we are rightly weary of experiences or actions which could be seen as destructive or just disruptive of our everyday lives.
Things which are outside of the everyday excite us and give us a new way of seeing the world but they also scare us and put our security at risk.
Our fears about being too conformist and therefore missing new opportunities are just the other side of the coin from being too radical and therefore missing the everyday and the ordinary.
This week on Wednesday we will meet together for the Eucharist and during that service we will be marked on our foreheads with ash in the sign of the cross. The dust reminding us that we are dust – implicated in the world’s mess but also in the shape of a cross because God comes to us to save us.
Remember you are dust – frightening words when you think about them, but they affirm something which is essentially true. Ash Wednesday brings us back to humility because through it we recognise the huge abyss that exists between our contingent existence here on earth and the uncreated eternity of God.
Luke’s Gospel has several transgressive moments if you like, moments when we are asked to step outside the everyday and see something extraordinary. In Luke’s account of the Baptism of Christ in chapter 3 we hear a voice saying: ’you are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased’ and at the conclusion to the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus the risen Christ says to them: ‘was it not necessary that the messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory’.
The transfiguration itself is such a moment, when we see something which turns the world upside down. In the first part of Luke’s Gospel the disciples have already seen a Jesus who serves the poor and the persecuted, a Jesus whose will ultimately die for our sakes. This is not a normal or an everyday model of how to be.
All of us feel that generally we fall short of this vision of how to live. I don’t think I am just speaking for myself when I say that at several points in my life I have felt that I have turned a corner, reached a level of understanding, matured sufficiently to see the bigger picture, become a more open, loving and generous human being only to discover in some chance encounter that I am the same useless, good for nothing, angry or cynical person I always was. How rage or jealousy can take us in the blink of an eye to a place we thought we had left forever. It has taken me a good few years to realise that when I see the old Phil Ritchie appearing again – angry or cynical or disenchanted I don’t have to run in the other direction. Christ comes not to heal not only the part of us we put on show but to bring healing to our whole persons.
We love to hope that real change is possible through our own efforts. John of the cross writes:
Many make great resolutions and plans, but they are not humble, and have no distrust of themselves, the more resolutions they make, the further they fall, and the more annoyed they become. They do not have the patience to wait till God gives them what they seek when he so desires…
‘Our healing cannot be engineered, it must come, like night, from God’ (Iain Matthew). We cannot save ourselves so we must begin by making peace with our poverty. Making peace with the fact that we are broken – that it is God who holds us and brings us healing.
The transfiguration, Jesus Christ shinning dazzling white and Elijah and Moses talking to him – ‘appearing in Glory’ as Luke tells us. This is the vision we must hold onto as we tumble into Lent. Erik Varden in his amazing book ‘The shattering of loneliness’ writes:
“I make peace with my poverty. I resolve to dwell within it. I accept that,, for all my desire to live, I shall die; that I am dust with a nostalgia for glory. I am taught to let glory, by grace, lay claim to my being even now, to make it resonant with the music of eternity”
Not all of us, Like Erik, have a calling to the religious life but we are called, no less intensely to recognise our wound as our need for God and our healing as coming from elsewhere. In the transfiguration we see the vision, we recognise that there is somewhere to which we are called, an incomprehensible vision of love, but it is God in Jesus who will take us there. Dust you are and unto dust you shall return. Repent and believe the Gospel. Amen.