Sermon Preached by John McLuckie on 25 February, Lent 2

In 1923, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit priest and palaeontologist, found himself in China on a scientific expedition. He had none of the usual vessels and materials necessary for the celebration of mass, so he wrote a reflection on the possibility of offering a mass that was beyond symbol and focussed instead on what he called the ‘pure majesty of the real itself’. He saw the whole earth as the altar and labours and sufferings of the world as his offering. On this reality, he would call down the Holy Spirit, as in every mass, and this Spirit was fiery and powerful. Here are some of his words:
‘It is done. Once again, the fire has penetrated the earth. Not with sudden crash of thunderbolt, riving the mountain-tops: does the Master break down doors to enter his own home? Without earthquake, or thunderclap: the flame has lit up the whole world from within. All things individually and collectively are penetrated and flooded by it, from the inmost core of the tiniest atom to the mighty sweep of the most universal laws of being: so naturally has it flooded every element, every energy, every connecting-link in the unity of our cosmos; that one might suppose the cosmos to have burst spontaneously into flame.’
Teilhard had an extraordinary sense of the energy of God permeating all things. This energy is nothing less than the gift of life itself, the gift of being, and it is found in every single atom of this beautiful, evolving universe. As a scientist committed to the study of rocks and fossils, he saw this divine energy even in the hard matter which was his daily study. He would find no problem with the prophet Isaiah speaking of mountains and hills breaking forth into song and he would endorse the poetry of St Francis who sang of brother fire’s praise of his Lord. Indeed, he would see these things as more than metaphor. The whole creation is purposeful, moving, alive and flooded with divine fire.
Teilhard’s vision was the vision of the transfiguration, which features on this second Sunday in Lent as well as on its own feast on the 6th of August. For the transfiguration is a vision of the whole creation flooded with the energy of divine light, revealed through Jesus on the mountain top. If you look at an icon of this scene, and there are a couple here in our Lady Chapel, you will see a curious artistic device which tries, in pictorial form, to describe something of this indescribable truth. Rays of light come down from heaven, through Jesus then onto the disciples. Jesus is surrounded by a dark circle which symbolises the cloud, making this scene one of mystery as well as illumination.
This form of icon developed in the Christian East to say something very important about the nature of God’s presence in the world. Put simply, it is intended to show us that God is both knowable and unknowable and what we can know about God is that he gives life to all that is. The light seen by the disciples on the mountain was nothing less than a glimpse of the divine energy that fills all things and sustains them in life. God is not far from us. He is present in the vibrancy of every atom of his universe. Even when things are dark and decaying, it is God’s energetic light that sustains us in life and propels us towards fullness. This icon proclaims that the universe, in its totality and in its parts, is not inert, not purposeless, not accidental, but divinely vibrant.
The transfiguration has given us a glimpse of a truth that is not always plain to us, but once we have seen it, we can never see the world in the same way again. How could we be neutral about a world that is bursting with life and longing for wholeness? How could we see ourselves only as consumers of resources when we begin to understand the interdependence of all things and the preciousness of each radiant part of this living planet?
As this is Fair Trade Sunday, let’s take a grain of Kilombero rice as an example. Truly present in this tiny seed is the energy of the sun that gave it growth and the energy of the farmer who cultivated it. In it is the genetic material of generations past and through it are the future generations of the farmer’s household fed. It holds the potential for new life either by propagation or by consumption: either way its life-giving legacy is ensured as its current form transfigures into something new. It holds the potential for sharing around a table or sharing in a just economy. It is more than just a reminder of God’s providence – it is the gift of God’s life-giving energies and as such is just as sacramental as any other created thing we might call holy.
We show not only gratitude for God’s creation, but also reverence. We might treat every pebble, every cup of water, every grain of rice as if it were a bearer of divine presence – and so it is. It is not created for our use, to satisfy our desires, but for its own splendour, and that is why we give thanks in humility when it generously nurtures us. It is this realisation that is the purpose of the fasting that Lent traditionally asks of us. It may be slightly out of fashion, but I would want to commend it as a discipline that teaches us how to recognise the giftedness of all that lives. In a small way, fasting helps us to turn away from our appetites and towards the simple, joyful recognition of how precious all of life is. Whether we prayerfully refrain from some foods or prayerfully take up the rice challenge, we will find that the spirit of Lent is the spirit of transfiguration: the whole universe is ablaze with the energy of God.