All Saints Sydenham
August 6th, 2000
Those of your who have ever had anything to do with the Theatre, whether the professional stage or the humble Amateur Dramatics will understand when I say that it's almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of lighting.
Of course the actors need to know their lines, and a good stage-set can be a great enhancement to any production, but however good the acting or imaginative the set, a badly-lit production will quickly lose the attention of any audience - and remember it's the audience's attention above all that we are punting for. Yes, we want their money; we want, if possible, their applause and approval; but above all we want the spectators to enter into and become part of what we are presenting them, and one of the certainties of stage craft is the vital importance of good lighting.
It's worth while thinking of the Transfiguration as an exercise in Stage Presentation. Lest anyone should think that the theatre is nothing more than a frivolous sort of entertainment, tacked on to the edges of life in order to keep people amused, let me remind you that, alongside priests and religious, there is no more dedicated a group of people than actors, producers, and stage managers. Such is their commitment that they would rather work for next-to-nothing than be unemployed, and there are few experiences in life which compare with a show that really "works", that "all comes together on the night".
So we are dealing with serious stuff here, and we need make no apology for God when he chose to put on a performance, so to say, for the three Chosen Apostles, Peter, James and John, the inner core of Jesus's followers.
Luke adds one interesting detail to the story – he tells us that the apostles were heavy with sleep, though he adds that they were still awake lest his readers might think that what happened was only a dream, which most emphatically it was not.
They were indeed drowsy and this can only mean that their attention was wandering. Now some Christians get very upset when their devotions, public or private, are distracted by wandering thoughts. The truth is, of course, that none of us, not even Jesus's closest companions, is capable of unbroken concentration. Our attention must constantly be brought back gently to focus upon Jesus. Some of you may know that children's chorus which goes:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in his wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.
God the Father's answer to wandering thoughts was that of a good producer. He firstly turned up the lights on the principal character, Jesus, by several notches in order to re-engage their interest. "His face shone like the Sun and his clothes became brilliant as a lightning".
Evidently, in God's view, sight comes before sound when it's a matter of grabbing people's attention. Think again of the theatre. What is it that most quickly stops an audience chattering among themselves and produces the silence necessary for the play to begin? Isn't it the moment when the house lights go down and the stage lights come up? That's a far more effective way of silencing people and signalling that the play is about to begin than shouting at them through the microphone. A change of light tells us instantly that something is about to happen.
What next? Well, as the stage lights come up they reveal whichever characters are On Stage: in the present instance these were Moses, Elijah and Jesus. "They were speaking together of his passing which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem".
The spoken word certainly has its place in the scheme of revelation, but only, as it were, when the stage has been set and the audience's attention properly engaged. Even then it's not the voice of God himself which the Apostles first hear. Their ears need to become attuned by a preliminary Overture which also sets the theme for the words which are to follow. The words of the three principal players Moses, Elijah and Jesus, unmistakably tell us that this play is about the death of their hero before anything else.
But lest the audience, Peter, James, John, you and I should fail to recognize which the leading player is, the spotlight is next turned fairly and squarely on Jesus, "suddenly a bright cloud came and covered them in its shadow". It was then and only then that the voice of the Almighty spoke those all-important words: "This is my Son, the chosen one, listen to him". The supporting cast made their exits and there, centre-stage was the Word made flesh, "and We beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth", as Saint John described it.
Finally, the curtain between heaven and earth comes down again and the house lights go up. There was Jesus, the man they had come to know and love, looking like his ordinary self. The play was over, at least that particular Act of it was – for there was much more to come as they descended the mountain of Transfiguration and Jesus resolutely set his face towards Jerusalem, which spelt for him shame and dishonour and the events of Good Friday, before the final Act of Resurrection and Ascension.
So what lessons have we learnt from this dramatic interlude?
Well, most importantly, we learn that Jesus is the central player in the drama – the play is about him and only secondarily about ourselves or even Moses or Elijah, Peter, James or John, essential though they may be to our understanding of what it is all about.
Secondly we learn the importance of good lighting. "After that experience," Peter might have said to his audience, "I came to see Jesus in an entirely different light". Our experience of Jesus must never be of the static once-and-for-all, snapshot-and-that's-it kind. It should, on the contrary be an experience of continuous revelation, as light is shed, now on this, now on that aspect of his countenance.
Finally there is the all-important question: Who is Jesus? And it's then, and only then, when the stage has been set, the house lights dimmed, and our attention engaged and the brightest light available focused upon Jesus himself, that God the Father will be ready to say to us "this is my beloved Son, listen to him".
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