Grace and peace and good morning. The word “Lent” comes from the older English lengten, the season when the days begin to lengthen and the nights grow noticeably shorter. This the last Sunday in the season after the Epiphany, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. On the old calendar of the Pre-lenten season, Quinquagesima, 50 days more or less until Easter, 7 Sundays. But even though pitchers and catchers report to Pirate City in Bradenton later this week, it still doesn’t feel too much like spring. We still need to bundle up for a while. In the old Prayer Book lectionary the gospel reading appointed for this Sunday before Lent was Luke 18. Jesus sits down with his disciples and tells them about the journey ahead. “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished.” The formal, intentional beginning of the last leg, from the Manger to the Cross.
In our contemporary three-year lectionary cycle all three years bring us instead, as we are this morning in Mark chapter 9, up to Mount Tabor, the Mount of the Transfiguration. Jesus, with Peter and James and John. And there at the top of the mountain Jesus is transfigured, that wonderful word, clothed in glorious shimmering white, “as no fuller on earth could bleach them,” in the words of the King James Version. Transcendent. Supernatural. Our hymn this morning: O Wondrous Type, O Vision Fair! These two towering figures of the scripture, Moses and Elijah, standing beside him, the fulfillment of all the Law and the Prophets. And the voice from heaven thundering the confirmation and blessing we first saw and heard at the very beginning of the gospel, at the scene of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, as the Holy Spirit descended upon him, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”
Carol Henley, who was a part of our St. Andrew’s family for several years as priest associate, is going to lead a Coffee and Conversation program in our “Way of Lent” series on what is sometimes called “Celtic Christianity,” and particularly to talk about her pilgrimage to Lindisfarne and Iona. One of the aspects that is so characteristic of the Celtic heritage is this sensitivity to the transcendent. An aspect of reflective mysticism. And one of the phrases that I’ve learned is that the teachers and writers and spiritual guides in that tradition would sometimes refer to “thin places.” Sometimes a particular place of customary prayer, a tree, a spring, a hilltop--but really a “place” that has a very open kind of definition. Depending on how things intersect with our “inner space.” How at any time and in any place you or I might be walking in the neighborhood or on the beach or in the mountains, or even simply sitting in our own living room, and have a sense of a moment to catch a glimpse--as it were, “behind the curtain.” Where the character and glory and beauty and richness of God’s eternal character and presence seems especially close. Close enough to touch, taste, smell. To catch a glimpse. Not of course to worship or make some kind of idolatrous shrine out of a magical tree or spring, but to be gifted in a moment, as we might be gifted at all times and in all places, with an impression of his presence.
It’s a “mountaintop experience,” as we might say this morning for Peter, James, and John. The Transfiguration of Christ, at once fully present to them as they have known him day after day, eating with them, walking with them, laughing with them, and at the same time now revealed and made manifest in the fullness of his divine glory, from before time and forever. Years later, the testimony of one of the witnesses, in the first chapter of the book of Second Peter: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word made more sure.”
The confirmation of all that the scriptures have said, the experience of the “heilsgeschichte,” the Holy Story that God unfolds for us, and the story into which he incorporates us as well. “You will do well to pay attention to this,” Peter continues, “as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” I love that: “until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” The fullness of God’s blessing.
Friends like our own Dean Byrom and many others have told me of the very meaningful and inspiring experience it is actually to visit the places in the Holy Land along the Biblical story, and I’m sure coming to the top of Mt. Tabor would be one of those inspiring places. Perhaps it might even be a “thin place” for us, as it was for Peter and James and John. A place to catch an inward glimpse. But if we don’t have the frequent flyer miles to get all the way there, we would be reminded that the retreat house across the river at Mt. Alvernia, with our friends the Sisters of St. Francis, is named “Tabor House.” To confirm that “mountain top experiences” can happen for us anywere. Even Millvale . . . . Or perhaps in this place, or where you walk the dog this afternoon . . . .
So Last Epiphany, Quinquagesima, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. What will be announced to us, from the Prayer Book, on this coming Wednesday, as we would come to one of the three services on that day here at St. Andrew’s—or sometimes folks find it convenient to attend the midday service downtown at the Cathedral, or in some other place near work or school. “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”
In all that, an invitation to us to be on the lookout for these thin places. Mountaintops. What can be truly part of our inner landscape. Thinking of the opportunities we might see even on display in our service leaflet this morning. The Inquirers Group that Garrett and Dan will be leading. Our Sunday morning series of Coffee and Conversation gatherings. A collection of daily devotional readings, which we have had given to us as a gift this morning, and which we can pick up today in the narthex or in Brooks Hall, or at our services on Ash Wednesday. Perhaps a pattern of personal devotion, prayer, reading that we try to develop ourselves.
St. Benedict in Chapter 49 of his Rule, speaking to his monks but perhaps for monk we can really pretty much substitute any Christian: “The life of a monk ought be be a continuous lent,” that is, a time of prayer, of repentance, reflection, renewal. “Since few, however, have the strength for this, we urge the entire community during these days of lent to keep its manner of life most pure, and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times. This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart, and to self-denial. During these days therefore we will add to the usual measure of our service something by way of private prayer and abstinence from food or drink, so that each of us will have something above the assigned measure to offer God of our own will with the joy of the Hoy Spirit. In other words, let each one deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting, and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.” Desserts, alcohol, between-meal snacks. I’ve seen friends talk about a “Fast from Facebook,” or video games, or television. No rules imposed from above, but to find a rule ourselves, an invitation to find just that food mix of prayer and reading and restraint that will make sense for us, as we would pause here on the mountaintop, on our way to Jerusalem.