Recently, I was in Washington and visited the Museum of the Bible. Its focus is the history, formation, copying, translating, printing, impact, influence of the Bible. It is new, close to the city centre, large, multi-storied, complete with a biblical roof-garden. Unbelievably, it cost some $400,000,000. It is certainly making a political point, but it is undoubtedly impressive. One feature is a walk through the Old Testament. You put on 3D glasses. You pass from room to room. There are sound effects and visual effects. You even walk through the Red Sea, without getting your feet wet, needless to say! The story is told in a rich New York Jewish accent and the narrator turns out to be Ezra the Scribe, from the 5th / 4th cc. BC.
Well, Lent is many things. It’s prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It’s the sacraments and preparation for sacraments. It’s following Christ. It’s conversion of heart. But it’s also a walk through the Old Testament. That happens memorably at the Easter Vigil, with seven readings from the Old Testament. But it happens also in the 1st readings of the Sundays of Lent. Last week, we heard of the covenant with Noah after the Flood. Today, this terrible magnificent story of the sacrifice of Abraham and the blessing of his obedience. Next Sunday, it’s the giving of the commandments through Moses at Mt Sinai. The Sunday after, the story of the Exile to Babylon and the return to Jerusalem. On the 5th Sunday of Lent, it’s the promise of a new covenant through the prophet Jeremiah. Selected highlights obviously. It prompts to us to fill in the gaps. So, this re-reading of the Old Testament is one of the strands of Lent. It’s part of the Church’s pedagogy. For catechumens, Lent is a time of catechesis. For the rest of us, it’s a time of re-catechesis, a kind of re-education camp. A question we can ask is, how well, do I know the Old Testament story? Can I tell it to others? I wish I could say that, at the back of the church today, there are books and DVDs about it available for sale! There is a plot-line. There is a connecting chain of key events and people: Creation and the Fall, the Flood and a new beginning, Abraham and the promise, Moses and the Exodus, David and the kingdom, Exile and return, the prophets and hope. There are key things: the Passover, the Covenant, the Law, the Land, the Temple. It can make sense. Something new came into the world with all of this, a small growing stream running through the landscape of human history, a fresh footprint of God.
But a deeper question is, why bother? If it’s all a Preface to Jesus, who needs to read the Preface when you can just begin the book? There are many answers to this. In Lent, it’s clear. The goal is Easter. Easter was Jesus’ Passover, through death and resurrection, from this world to the Father. It was his Exodus and it becomes ours through baptism, when we pass through the waters. It’s the fulfilment of that old Exodus which was the whole foundation and well-spring of the people of Israel. Perhaps, knowing the Old Testament gives us 3D glasses. It is about the IMAX Jesus. Jesus was, is a Jew. This is his history and therefore it’s ours. If you are a foreigner seeking British citizenship, you are expected to learn the outline of your new country’s history. If you marry someone, you get their family too. And so here. Everything Jesus is and said and did – yes, goes beyond the old – but presupposes it. Today’s Gospel shows this. Jesus is transfigured in front of the three disciples. Then ‘Elijah appeared to them with Moses; and they were talking with Jesus.’ Elijah embodies prophecy, Moses the Law. Their presence shows that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Law and the prophets; that they lead to him, the beloved Son. And so we see Jesus in 3D, as it were.
Or think of Christ as a painting. Think of today’s Gospel as a picture in words. Then think of perspective. By the technique of perspective we can represent three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface in the way we see them with our eyes. Perspective gives the main subject of the painting a setting, a context, in a definite space. The foreground now has a background, a depth, and so its significance shines out. Here is Jesus on the mountain, put in the foreground by the Father, but given perspective by Moses and Elijah. Again, there is something called ‘reverse perspective’. It applies to icon-painting. In this case, the perspective is not inside the painting, as it were, but comes from outside, from us, the onlooker. The lines point to us. This is the function the disciples fulfill in today’s Gospel. They are drawn in, and so we are drawn in: we who hear the Gospel and can imagine it. So here is Christ the centre: here giving background perspective is ancient Israel, the people of the Old Covenant, here in reverse perspective is us the Church, the people of the New Covenant. Here are also Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So, here is Jesus in 3D, the IMAX Jesus – realer than any cinema.
One last thing. The old catechisms say the Christian has three enemies: the world, the flesh and the devil. The devil featured last week. But how is the world our enemy? Could it be through images? We are surrounded by images, invaded by them, enthralled by them, imprisoned, sometimes poisoned. Some are harmless, some inspirational, some pernicious – as in pornography. Whether good, bad or indifferent, they fill our mental space. They modify the brain. They keep us superficial, as we flick from one to the other. We lose the art of thinking. What about fasting from images, diminishing our intake, or rather replacing them with good images and lingering over those. Today’s Collect prays for a purified vision. I knew someone who, for Lent, decided to draw each Sunday Gospel. In Lent, the Bible is there to cleanse and refurnish our personal imagery. Let me say to parents: think what images your children are eating. Don’t let them surfeit on them. Don’t use them to tranquillise them. Teach them how to use them. Guide them to good ones. The Old Testament is full of images to enchant a child. Encourage them to create their own. We are so careful today about what we eat and let our children eat. We should be even more careful about our diet of images.
‘There in their presence he was transfigured.’ There he shone out in all his dimensions. There he took on a new reality. That’s the grace of Lent. That is Easter!
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 25 February 2018)