Pity the Nation: a time for transfiguration

Clare Amos, Diocesan Director of Lay Discipleship reflects in this week in which the Feast of the Transfiguration falls. You can contact Clare at clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

 

theophanes transfiguration good version 1

Theophanes the Greek: Icon of the Transfiguration

A couple of months ago meeting  via Zoom (as one does!) with some diocesan colleagues, one of the group commented that our experiences over the last few months were the most difficult times any of us had had to live through, or were likely to have to do so. I had to demur. For it is not the case for my husband and myself.

I am very conscious that Alan and I are comparatively ‘privileged’ for these Coronavirus times. We live in a lovely house, with a large garden, in glorious Dorset countryside in a village with a great esprit de corps. If you have to experience lockdown it is a good place to do so. What is more, since both of us are formally retired from paid work (though we do seem to be busier than ever at the moment!) we are spared the threat of redundancy that is understandably creating anxiety for a great many people.

But for us, there is really no comparison between the ‘hardships’ of the present, and the fear and challenges we lived through on many occasions in Beirut, during the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s and 1980s, including the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.  Alan became chaplain to All Saints Anglican congregation, Beirut, in 1975 just as the civil war was beginning. He had arrived in Lebanon a couple of years earlier to teach at the Orthodox seminaries, and found himself asked to take responsibility for the chaplaincy. Alan and I met in Jerusalem in mid-1977 when I was lecturing at St George’s College, deciding to get married 5 days after we met, and I moved to Beirut in January 1978 – for an ‘interesting’ first few years of marriage. We of course contravened all the sage advice designed to facilitate and lead to an enduring relationship. All I will say is that we are still married 42 years later.

We left Lebanon in August 1982, towards the end of the Israeli siege of West Beirut, having lived under siege for the previous couple of months, with little electricity, water – and certainly very little security. I can still hear the scream of the Israeli jets dive-bombing parts of the city, and wondering if our apartment building would be their next target, not least because in the car park outside the Palestinian Red Crescent had set up a mobile communications centre which seemed to be doubling as a broadcasting station for the ‘Voice of Palestine’. In spite of all this, it was a profound wrench to leave that country that meant so much to both of us. In fact it wasn’t the war that caused us to leave. It was due largely to the embedded sexism of the missionary organisation which we were associated with, which had led us to apply for lecturing positions at Westcott House Cambridge, to which we had been appointed in March 1982. We felt we needed to honour these new roles, even though when we applied for them we had not expected what was to come in the summer of 1982. In retrospect I am glad that we left then. Dangerous though it was, up to 1982 life in Beirut was not more hazardous if you were a foreigner. That was to change within a year or so, when the deliberate targeting of foreigners for hostage-taking began. If we had continued to live in the country we would either have had to leave very quickly after a warning – or if we had left it too long Alan would probably have spent a few years enjoying the hospitality of Hezbollah.

I have mentioned this personal history largely to explain why the explosion in Beirut earlier this week, has moved and saddened me so. As I wrote on my facebook page the morning after the blast I am not sure whether the fact that it seems to have been a terrible accident due to institutional incompetence makes it better or worse. When we lived through the civil war in Lebanon we used to tell ourselves that out of all the horror and bloodshed a ‘new’ Lebanon might emerge, with an end to its sectarianism, fostered by the corrupt political class for their own ends. It has become apparent in recent years that the ‘old’ elite and old attitudes are still very much in control.

all saints beirut

All Saints Church, Beirut

 

Alan was chaplain of All Saints Church in Beirut. Due to its position close to the Green Line it was shut up for much of the civil war (our regular Anglican services during the period took place at borrowed churches in the city). The last service held in it for about 12 years took place on Ash Wednesday 1977 (there was plenty of dust and ashes around!). I myself never went inside the church until a visit to Beirut in 2012 though I was told a lot about it. It had been a building much loved by the church community. It used to be on the seafront, and sometimes members of the congregation would dive in immediately after Sunday service.  In fact the structure of the church survived the civil war fairly much intact, and it was well restored and even extended in the 1990s and more recently. It is no longer on the seafront  however – since the coastline has been changed by a fill of earth and rubble. It is also now surrounded by tall apartment blocks, hotels and shops, definitely a small ‘house of God’ in the middle of mammon. Ironically this week mammon seems to have protected it fairly well, for although it is only about 1 km from the site of the explosion, the surrounding taller buildings shielded it to a considerable extent. Quite a lot of the glass in the church hall shattered, but other than that there was not substantial damage. In fact, the Near East School of Theology where I lectured when we lived in Beirut suffered rather worse. Though it was further from the epicentre of the explosion, the fact that it was a much taller building with a plate glass front meant that the damage there was considerable.

damage at all saints

Damage at All Saints after the explosion of 4 August 2020.

My years living in Lebanon have profoundly influenced my theology, and certainly encouraged my interest in the theme of transfiguration. Parts of Lebanon are still heart-stoppingly beautiful – in spite of the continuing corruption that allows virtually unfettered building to take place. Lebanon encourages me to reflect on what it might mean to transfigure disfigurement. My interest in the theme of religion and violence has also been provoked by my experiences in the Middle East, and there too I think that the language of ‘transfiguration’ has helpful insights to offer. As it happens I was preaching yesterday (6 August) for a Zoom service celebrating the Feast of the Transfiguration. I share some of my reflections offered then below – and they are complemented by a powerful series of short poems that my husband Alan wrote after hearing the news of the explosion. Pity the Nation, Pray for Lebanon.

*****

Why the theme of transfiguration is important to me…

  • First some wonderful words of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury. In his book, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ Ramsey reflected: ‘The transfiguration ‘stands as a gateway to the saving events of the gospel, and is a mirror in which the Christian mystery is seen in its unity. Here we perceive that the living and the dead are one in Christ, that the old covenant and the new are inseparable, that the Cross and the glory are of one, that the age to come is already here, that our human nature has a destiny of glory, that in Christ the final word is uttered and in him alone the Father is well pleased. Here the diverse elements in the theology of the New Testament meet.’ As Ramsey suggests, the transfiguration is at the heart, core and centre of the New Testament, holding together the great Christian themes of incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. In fact I would probably go further than Ramsey does in this comment and suggest that the transfiguration really lies at the core of Christian theology and spirituality. Indeed Christian spirituality has itself been described as ‘the art of transfiguration’.
  • Secondly Michael Ramsey and his theology sum up for me what is the best about the Anglican tradition. And I think that it is no accident that Ramsey cherished the transfiguration so deeply because I believe that there is something about the transfiguration which reflects the particular charism of the Anglican way. For Anglicanism at its best seeks to interweave in a creative tension two contrasting trajectories or threads. As Anglicans we value tradition, continuity, hierarchy, worship, our internal life, the role of authority, the importance of unity; but we also acknowledge the need for transformation, for outreach, change, egalitarianism, for subversiveness, diversity and mission. If you unpack the story of Christ’s transfiguration, both in terms of its Old Testament precursors and its place in the Gospels, you find both these threads held together creatively in the story.  And I think our task as Anglicans, is to be a visible expression of the ‘good’ (a word that appears in the transfiguration narrative) of allowing both threads to interface with each other. Because in their meeting and dialectic there is a special transfiguring power which takes us to the heart of the Gospel. It is not easy: most people and places fall off one side or the other. But it is I believe a challenge worth striving for.
  • Thirdly, in the professional work that I have been doing over the years in the field of religion and violence, I have begun to explore how religion as transfiguration can be a vital antidote to religion understood as fundamentalism which I regard as profoundly dangerous. Fundamentalism is intrinsically dualistic, with a sharp dichotomy between good and evil and the blind certainty of its proponents can lead to desire for violent change. Transfiguration on the other hand, at its core affirms the goodness of creation, and of the world which God so loved. It calls us into a conversation which changes us as we seek to change the world by drawing closer to God. Indeed we discover that we cannot change others unless we ourselves are willing to continue to be transfigured as well. Something of this is caught in the icon painted by a 15th century artist Theophanes the Greek (see above). Notice how the light shining from Christ seem to touch, and sink into the forms of the disciples themselves, and invite them to respond so that they – and we too – as  created beings can be illuminated and transfigured by the meeting between the light already within us, and the light which beams from the figure of Christ, and gradually the circle of transfiguration widens out to include others in Christ’s transfiguring light.
  • Finally, until the twentieth century the transfiguration was a neglected feast within the Anglican tradition. It wasn’t until 1928 that the keeping of the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6 was mandated in an Anglican prayerbook. Now in fact the Transfiguration does rather well – for as well as August 6 it is also commemorated either in or just before Lent. Yet the two occasions in which the church calendar encourages us to remember this Gospel story have a rather different feel from each other. Back in or near Lent, we are encouraged particularly to reflect on Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop as being the precursor to Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and to the cross.The celebration of the transfiguration at this point in the year in August is not quite the same. Falling as it does towards the end of the liturgical year, and close to the time of harvest in the northern hemisphere, it encourages us to reflect on the eventual destiny of creation, when all in the end will be harvest. Eastern Christians who have seen a profound link between the transfiguration and the need for care of God’s good earth have a sure instinct. The transfiguration of Christ is a foretaste of the time when the whole of creation will hopefully share in the circle of God’s movement of glory and blessing. Something that took place 75 years ago today has sharpened the importance of that meaning. For on 6 August 1945 the first atomic bomb was detonated at Hiroshima. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that particular action and its implications for the end of the Second World War, there is certainly a very bitter congruence that it should have happened on this particular day. There is a challenging prayer which speaks of the fact that now we as humanity have been offered the choice of two ways to walk, towards the radiance of the transfigured Christ or the disfiguring radiance of the bomb, towards the radiance that descends to touch, to heal and to restore, or towards the radiance that descends to defend, to murder and to destroy. We have in fact been offered the choice between life or death.

    Until two days ago that was how I was planning to end my sermon. Then on Tuesday evening there was the dreadful explosion in Beirut. Thankfully it was not a nuclear bomb. But it is telling that people in Lebanon have referred to it as Beirut’s Hiroshima. As most of you probably know Lebanon is very dear to both Alan and myself. When we lived there during the civil war, Alan wrote a prayer that was used regularly in All Saints Anglican Church where he was chaplain. I draw on this to end by praying for the transfiguring of the achingly beautiful land of Lebanon.

God bless Lebanon,
Guard her children,
Guide her leaders,
Give her peace;
May Lebanon become once again a place of unity in diversity,
Where all may learn to honour one another,
And humankind as your creation.
In the name of Christ we pray. Amen.  

*****

Fragments for a Lebanon blown apart…

This country is cursed
shouted the young man
in shattered Beirut

He was right of course
not cursed by Allah
but by religion.
( I use the term Allah because in Arabic it is used both by Christians and Muslims)

Those in the prison of sectarianism
do not see the bars of their cage
they only see the bars of the cage
of their neighbour.

Abraham, Jesus,  Muhammad
all had problems with religion
as they found it
corrupted upon earth

It takes a human being
to turn the best into the worst.

This is the Ottomans’ doing
how they made each sect
a little empire in itself
paying homage to their Sultan.

Alan Amos

*****

‘Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.
Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave
and eats a bread it does not harvest.

Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero,
and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful…

Pity the nation divided into fragments,
each fragment deeming itself a nation.’ (Khalil Gibran)

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