HEARING WITH THE HEART - A Sermon for the Sunday before Lent

 Duccio di Buoninsegna - The Transfiguration

Duccio di Buoninsegna - The Transfiguration

A Sermon for Bladon and Woodstock
The Sunday next before Lent 2017


Matthew 17.1-9

On Monday I had the great pleasure of going to meet with our MP, Robert, at the Houses of Parliament. I deliberately got an earlier train, as I wanted to see a picture that I have long known about, but never seen.

The National Gallery has just put on display:  Guido Cagnacci’s The Repentant Magdalene. [1] I especially wanted to see it because of the dedication of Woodstock Parish Church, but also because the painting is as famous as its inventor (Cagnacci signs the painting not artist, or painter, but ‘inventor’) is a man of some mystery. The painting doesn’t have Mary Magdalene looking like any of the depictions of her in the stained glass windows in Woodstock. Its very sexy, deeply erotic, amazingly sensual. She has flung her clothes and jewellery to one side, and lies facing plainly clothed Martha, busy about conversion. In the centre a rather Adonis-like allegory of Virtue is shunting a rather devilish allegory of Vice out of the picture. There is a great deal of flesh involved – and I highly recommend it!

Still with a few minutes to spare, I thought I would chug along to the Sainsbury Wing to see my favourite picture, Crevelli’s Annunciation [2], and, sulla strada, I remembered that today’s Gospel reading was Matthew’s version of the Transfiguration. Feeling arty, I decided to go and find all the depictions of the Transfiguration in the National Gallery, so that I could get some images, and talk about them with you today.

Problem. There’s only the one. One. There are scores of nativities, baptisms, trials, crucifixions, resurrections, ascensions – but only one Transfiguration. 

Poor old Duccio di Buoninsegna, Duccio to his amici, tucked away in room 51. I’d never heard of him, I’m sorry to say, and the picture is a surprise – yes, it has Moses, and Elijah, and three fairly puzzled looking disciples. But Jesus is blue. Matthew tells us quite clearly his ‘face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light’ [Matt. 17.2]. Duccio, it seems, hadn’t quite remembered his Matthew. Jesus’ robes are blue – gold-trimmed, it must be said, and rather lovely – but blue. [3]

On the way back on the train I did some mooching around on a well-known search engine, and discovered that the Transfiguration is, probably, the least depicted event in Gospel art. There’s the famous Raphael in the Vatican Museum [4]. There’s a cracking one by Gerard David in Bruges [5]. And, er – well, that’s about it really. In terms of renaissance art, it seems that this scene is too difficult to grasp. What’s really interesting is that icon-writers don’t seem to have had the same qualms as the masters of European art. There are loads of icons from the Orthodox tradition with some amazing depictions of Christ transfigured. But paintings? No.

Reflecting on this made me think that there was sense to all of this. The Transfiguration of Jesus is one of the most mysterious events in the gospel accounts. And Eastern Orthodoxy, with its love of the mysterious, was bound to get a prayerful, pictorial, handle on the image. Central Europe in the late middle ages was less into mystery, perhaps – certainly from the evidence of what we find in our churches and galleries, it would seem so.

Now I have loved this story since I first encountered it, and I’ve preached on it at least twenty times. And each time that I’ve preached on it, I’ve concentrated on explaining the visual. I’ve talked about the symbolic presence of Moses and Elijah. I’ve talked about how the different gospel authors give us fascinating variations in their accounts. I’ve told you about my visits to the Holy Land, and the basilica of the Transfiguration on the top of Mount Tabor, with its church representing the three shelters that Peter wants, mistakenly, to erect. 

But where I am steered this time round is away from what we see, and towards what we hear. 

Because, from the heart of the mystery, speaks God himself. Out of the cloud, no less, from the very depths of obscurity, emerges clarity: clarity, not of vision, but of voice.

‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!’ [Matt 17.5]
16 words in English, rendered by 12 words in the Greek. ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!’

I am grateful for Duccio, and for there being just the one Transfiguration in the National Gallery. Because it has forced me away from the visual, and to contemplation of the vocal. The Transfiguration is so visually stunning an event that, naturally, we are going to be, literally, dazzled by it. The danger of this wonderful Gospel, though, is that we get misted over by the glory of it all. It’s dazzling. So dazzling that we miss the crucial point. This isn’t essentially about what we can or can’t see. It is all about what we can, and do, and must, hear. This is my Son. LISTEN TO HIM.

Listening to Jesus means studying the scriptures, and learning his ways. It means becoming disciples – for real. Discipline. It means being transformed from people who go to church into people who ARE the church. 

Which leads nicely to Lent. Lent begins on Wednesday; and Lent is a good time to start listening properly. 

Peter wanted to stay on the mountain. It was easier to bask in the glory. But Jesus’ words didn’t allow for that. Don’t tell anyone what you have seen. 

Not yet. 

We can tell people religious stuff, vision stuff, and they might well be amazed, or think we’re nuts.

Better not to say anything perhaps. Better to show them. 

If people see you in and out of here during Lent; if people know that you’re making an effort; if people can see that you’re giving, praying, loving, listening (and believe me, they will, because this is behaviour that changes you) it will show that you are doing more than just hearing with your ears. You will be hearing with your heart. 

So here’s the invitation. Listen to him, for real, this Lent. Make an effort. Make it special. Come to church – morning and evening prayer every day, Eucharist and Compline on Wednesdays too. Join a group. Attend something special. Read a book. Do something extra. Fast. Give more. Read your Bibles. None of this is in any particular order. But it should be done, and it starts with Ash Wednesday, and I look forward to seeing you – all of you – here.

And if you can’t be bothered, well, then it’s no wonder that churches are emptying, is it? Because if we don’t care, why the hell should anyone else?

And it is hell, a world without God. That’s exactly what it is. So this Lent, make it special. Enjoy the gift of this season, the springtime, the lengthening of our days, not only by natural light, but by the light of the love of Jesus Christ. Pay attention to his word, as to a light shining in a dark place’. [2 Peter 1.19] He seeks our company. He seeks our audience. And we owe it to Him, and to ourselves, to hear. To hear with our hearts.


Guido Cagnacci, The Repentant Magdalene, after 1660 © Norton Simon Art Foundation