Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Liturgical scholars will tell you that every Sunday of the church year is like a little Easter, an observance of the Resurrection regardless of the season in which it falls. This is true, though some Sundays are more “Easter-y” than others in practice. Today, the Sunday next before Lent, seems particularly so. We will share a celebratory meal together. You might notice that the hymns include as many “alleluias” as possible, since that word is verboten during the season of Lent. I don’t know if you’re like me in how you prepare for the changing church season at home, but in my weekly grocery shopping this week I made certain to get a goodly amount of meat, chocolate, and coca cola, all things that will not reappear in our kitchen between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. So, this “shrovetide”, as it’s traditionally called, is like a little Easter before entering the long season of self-denial into which we’re all about to enter.

A few years ago on this Sunday I introduced you to a term which I’d like to remind you of this year. The word is prolepsis. It’s from a Greek root pro-lambanein which means anticipation, and it means the breaking-in of a reality before it has been accomplished in the time-line as we perceive it.

Prolepsis is not simple foreshadowing. Most of us know what foreshadowing is. It is a literary device that hints at what is to come. Prolepsis, though, is not about merely hinting at the future, not simply suggesting what is about to take place. It is rather when the future in some more substantive sense breaks into the present, is made manifest outside the normal flow of time as we perceive it.

As Christians we live proleptically; we allow the sure and certain future of the Kingdom of God to break in to the present. We cannot fully perceive the Kingdom of God, it hasn’t been fully accomplished in our time-line, and yet the Kingdom of the world to come is made real and present at the altar. From our human perspective, the dead have not yet been raised to enjoy eternal life with God, but from the perspective of God, who functions outside of time as much as within it, the faithful departed are already in His presence. It can get confusing, but it will suffice to say that the mystery of redemption is beyond our capability to perceive because our minds simply cannot function without positing the passage of time. More about that in a minute.

This morning’s Gospel reading is an example of prolepsis. What happened on the Mount of Transfiguration was in fact an incursion of the future into the present. Specifically, the reality of the Resurrection was not just foreshadowed, but made really present in Christ’s miraculous mountaintop transformation.

Let’s take a closer look at the text. The scene occurs a week after Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Christ (our translation says “six days later”, though ancient people reckoned time inclusively, which is a bit confusing to us, but just understand that the Transfiguration happens a week after Peter’s Confession). This is significant. God created the world in seven days and as Christians we believe that in some sense He recreated it, He changed everything, on one day: the day of Resurrection. Throughout Christian history in fact, and especially in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Easter has been referred to as “the eighth day”. The Gospel writers were likely trying to make the connection between the Transfiguration and the Resurrection clear simply by making a point to say that is happened a week later.

When on the mountain top, Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white. Mark’s account of the story is even more descriptive than the other Gospels, which is surprising given what we learned last week about Mark’s usual practice of removing details to get the story out quickly: “[Jeseus’] garments became glistening,” he wrote, “intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them.” Even somebody whose whole livelihood was to bleach clothes, a fuller, couldn’t have got any clothes this white. This should stir up in our minds the men at the tomb on the day of Resurrection, whose clothes are described by all of the Gospel writers as being extraordinarily white.

Likewise, we learn in the other accounts that at the Transfiguration “the appearance of [Jesus’] face changed.” This is what “transfiguration” literally means, to change appearance. Compare this with all of those accounts of the Resurrection, where Jesus is not recognized. Mary Magdalene didn’t recognize Jesus until he called her by name; the disciples on the road to Emmaus didn’t recognize him until he broke bread with them; the apostles didn’t recognize him until he said “peace be with you.”

All of this is to suggest that though Christ was still on his way to Calvary, though he had not yet even died, he and his disciples experienced a foretaste of the Resurrection that day on the mountain. God wasn’t simply foreshadowing what was going to happen after Jesus’ death; rather, God let a little bit of the future, a little bit of the greatest event in history, impinge upon the present of Jesus and his disciples. Jesus had a “little resurrection” that day which was intimately connected to the resurrection as it was to take place several days later. Perhaps it was to give hope to the apostles. Perhaps it was to give Jesus himself the strength to suffer the agonies of the Cross, knowing that the transforming power of the Resurrection would ultimately triumph.

In any event, we have something to learn from this. We still live in a world beset by sin and suffering. We still live in a world where death is a reality. We still need forty days of Lent—that ever looming church season which commences Wednesday—to remind us.

But we can nonetheless experience hints of the Resurrection and the Kingdom of God among these things that are passing away. We acknowledge the “not yet” nature of the Resurrection and the Kingdom. We still have a shift in verbs in the Creed. “We believe in one God” and so forth, while we “look for”, or prosdokō- “await”, the Resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. They are still future events, but we Christians are proleptic people. We look for the Resurrection of the dead, but we also experience it in the here-and-now. We experience it in Baptism. We look for the life of the world to come, but we also experience it in the here-and-now. We experience it in the Eucharist, a foretaste of the eternal feast.

We should be open to experiencing the risen life, but we must also live in the real world, and we can hold these two truths together. Like Peter, we might want to build huts for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah; we may want to remain in the joy we experience in the risen life made so real and present in the Sacraments and in our lives as Christians, but like Jesus and like the disciples, we’ll eventually have to go back down the mountain. We shall all have to go back out into the world to love and serve the Lord, and humbly walk the way of the Cross. The mountain-top experiences are fleeting, but like Jesus and the disciples they give us strength. They give us the strength to do God’s work in a broken world, to live lives of sacrifice, knowing that some day we will experience the risen life, the life of the Kingdom, uninterrupted and in perpetuity. May we hold on to that blessed hope, and thus be strengthened to live in love and do God’s work with even more resolve.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.