Transfiguration: A Sermon for St Chad’s Day, Durham Cathedral

Context: Durham Cathedral filled with Chad's students all dressed creatively, eccentrically, in every shade of green, sleep-deprived, happy and in the midst of one of the highlights of their year, a whole day of celebrating their college.

You're looking fabulous. And very, very green. I hope you're also feeling fabulous! And loving Chad's Day so far?

I want to start with a confession. Are you sitting comfortably?

Some years ago, I fell in love – with a window.

Not just any old window: it was a pretty spectacular window and, as sometimes happens with love, it was one I had seen quite a few times before.

I suddenly saw it in a new light and – boom – breath taken away, mind blown, it was the most beautiful window in the world to me.  It still is!

transfigurationwindowdurhamYou can take a look for yourselves sometime if you like: it’s a window just behind us here, the newest window in Durham Cathedral, the Ramsey window, commissioned in honour of one of the most distinguished former bishops of Durham, Michael Ramsey, who was also possibly the greatest Archbishop of Canterbury of last century. He was also a great friend of this college, the person after whom our Ramsey House is named.

The window is also called the Transfiguration window, because that’s what it’s based on: the passage in Matthew’s gospel that we heard read earlier – Jesus up a mountain with his disciples and a sudden revelation of his true significance.

Like most people, I’ve never quite known what to make of the passage, and mostly tended to just pass it by.

Until the window.

transfigurationinfoMaybe I saw it for the first time with the light streaming through it in exactly the right way.  Maybe I was sitting in just the right place.  Possibly I was in just the right kind of suitably receptive mood (love, after all, often depends on this kind of serendipity).

Anyway, I was struck by the beauty of its colours – all golds and ambers and blues and whites and radiance; I loved the way it caught that sense of the thick texture, the glimmering of the natural world, like a Samuel Palmer painting, the liquidity of the sea, the graininess, the woodiness of the material world.

I loved the image of St Cuthbert: that most loved saint of the North East on whose shrine, just behind the high altar, the window looks down. Cuthbert stands in possibly one of the most luminous sections of the window – hands simple, defenceless, loving it all – golden cliff rearing behind him, seagulls circling, around him the sea, liquid gold in a magical transfiguring evening light. You can see Michael Ramsey himself with his unmistakable shock of white, sticking-out hair gazing up intently at the light. You can also pick out Durham Cathedral, depicted as a shimmering new Jerusalem, a vision of a building we know and love transformed in a new heaven, a new earth, a vision in which it’s very hard to tell one from the other. Chad's, of course, is right behind it - although, bafflingly, the artist doesn't quite make us quite visible.

The window as a whole is an image of the love of God and the way it transfigures, transforms the whole world. At the top is an image of Christ – Christ holding his arms out in welcome, and within that welcoming Christ is a smaller Christ, arms outstretched on the cross, head hanging down, defeated.  And from this image flows a brilliance of white light which defines everything else in the window – all the people, all the landscapes, all the colours.

What this sudden epiphany of beauty did for me was to make me look again at this whole idea of Transfiguration, what it’s saying, what it’s pointing to, what it’s all about – and what it might have to do with St Chad's and all of us (but more of this later).

It also made me return to a poem I have known and loved for a long time, a poem by the Scottish poet Edwin Muir, called Transfiguration.

The poem begins like this:

So from the ground we felt that virtue branch

Through all our veins till we were whole, our wrists

As fresh and pure as water from a well,

Our hands made new to handle holy things,

The source of all our seeing rinsed and cleansed

Till earth and light and water entering there

Gave back to us the clear unfallen world.

Like Thomas Denny, the artist who made the window, Edwin Muir is imagining in his poem what it might be like to glimpse a vision of the world transfigured, transformed into an Eden-like world where all the painful, horrible things that hurt people have been undone – rinsed and cleansed, a world where all is as it could be, should be, suffused in glory.

The glimpse is fleeting but it's a moment that changes everything. It’s about that sudden dawning when we glimpse a different reality, a different possibility, a sense of what the world looks like when we see it in the depth of its glory and beauty, when we recognize what Gerard Manley Hopkins calls that “dearest freshness deep down things”.

It's the kind of recognition, transformation that happens when we fall in love: we see the beloved as utterly wonderful, and we ourselves (if we are lucky and the love is returned) are seen in our best possible light, as our best, most beautiful self. And the whole world is suddenly illuminated, transfigured. And life is great. Many of you will know exactly what I’m talking about; and if you don’t yet, I hope one day soon you will!

This is not about delusion or wishful thinking. Both these works of art are very aware of the darkness in our world. In the window, there are moving scenes at the bottom, around the edges: a miner killed in a pit accident, a harrowing of hell, two thirds of the way down, a couple running away, fleeing the inpouring light. In Muir’s poem, he poses the question about which is more real: the world of the radiant vision or the forlorn earth of the exile, the prisoner, those who “hide within the labyrinth of their loneliness”.

If it had lasted but another moment

It might have held for ever! But the world

Rolled back into its place, and we are here,

And all that radiant kingdom lies forlorn,

As if it had never stirred.

And after the epiphany, we return with a bump to the world without that vision, what we sometimes like to call the "real" world with its messiness, and meaninglessness and meagerness.

But life is a complicated mixture of both, isn’t it, the beauty and the mess, the mundane and the glorious, the heartstoppingly beautiful and the heartbreakingly tragic.

It’s one of the things I’m very aware of in my work in St Chad’s. The incredibly difficult things some of you have to deal with, so often with real courage and fortitude.  The way so many of you support friends through some very dark times in their lives, the messes that people sometimes find themselves in, our own difficult places.  Occasionally, life feels like a bad dream, just too full of the darkness, and the darkness feels overwhelming: the refugee crisis, ISIS, climate change, the misery of poverty.  And these, like our own more private pain, are real.  Absolutely real.

But so is that other reality – the epiphany that shows us an alternative vision, sometimes only glimpsed fleetingly, of how it could be, should be, how we long for it to be. Maybe days like today offer us that kind of epiphany, that kind of glimpse of an alternative reality in which our overwhelming sense is: isn’t this great?  Isn’t this beautiful?  And when even the most unlikely people are bathed in a magically transfiguring light and we see that, actually, they are indescribably lovely.  And maybe that’s why we love Chad’s day so much.

One of the things I think we all love about St Chad’s, and why Chad’s Day is so special, is the amazing sense of community we have here.  Now we know (at least I hope we know) that we are far from perfect and we don’t get it right all of the time.  But successive generations of Chadsians tell me that the sense of community and friendship they experience here is something that shapes them for the rest of their lives.  I like to think that the values we try to live by here – mutual respect, listening to those who see the world very differently from us, kindness, all involving a kind of humility and justice – will be the hallmarks of anyone who calls themselves a Chadsian.  So that whatever you go on to do and whoever you become, you will remember the realities we tried to live by here, and refuse to accept the cynicism that only allows itself to see the world as meagre, messy and mundane.  Often it is.  But that’s not all it is.  By no means.

What I think the window and the poem and the Bible passage are offering us is a choice. Which reality will we live by? It’s not about denial or wishful thinking, but of looking at the world with eyes wide open and refusing to believe that the darkness is the truer reality.   It’s carrying in our minds’ eyes, in our hearts, the kind of world we yearn for, the vision, the possibility, of a situation, a life, a world, a college, transfigured.

And the challenge for all of us, whatever our faith or world view or background, is how can we allow that recognition, that beauty, that glimpse of glory, to change us, our lives, our college, our world so that, even just a bit, we inhabit a little more the values that Jesus talks about when he's trying to convey what the kingdom of God is like – a place of love and justice, of feasts and celebration, of joy and plenitude.

So, on this Chad’s Day, this wonderful annual celebration of all we love about this college, about its community: enjoy it all, enjoy each other – and if somewhere in it you have an epiphany of just how beautiful it all is, and even how in love with it all you are – this place, these people – then – wonderful!  No, it’s not the only reality.  Yes, it may, today, even be inspired by a drop of drink here and there.  But enjoy it, don’t dismiss it, because maybe, just maybe, whatever this joy, this love, this radiance is, maybe it’s pointing us to the truest reality, and as we recognize that, we give it space to be much more than just a momentary glimpse.


A sermon preached in Durham Cathedral on 5th March, 2016.

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