A Lenten Message of an Icon

Icon of the Transfiguration written by Sister Irène of the Convent at Bec-Hellouin, Normandy.
Photograph arranged by Piers Northam.

The Gospel used by the Church of England on the Sunday before Lent is that of the Transfiguration. (Luke 9: 28-36) An unusual choice perhaps but it has a message to tell us as we enter, once again, the Lenten season.

One of the most treasured things I have is an Icon of the Transfiguration (see above). It was  painted/written by Sister Irène of the Convent at Bec-Hellouin, in Normandy. Sister Irène wrote (or painted) two versions. One is in the Chapel of the Transfiguration in the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist, Epping. It was commissioned specially for the new Chapel. The second is in the library in my home. It was written in memory of parents.

Over the centuries there have been many attempts by artists and Icon writers to capture the moment when Jesus is Transfigured – bathed in glory –on the Mountain.
Quite naturally the primary subject matter of these paintings & icons is Jesus bathed in beatific and glorious light. It is to this that our eyes are drawn but also  we take note of the other five figures, not least the favoured disciples, Peter, James & John, usually at the foot of the painting, often in a state of enraptured prayer.
In Sister Irène’s Icon there is a sense of awesomeness and of being overcome by the dazzling beauty of it all.

We are led by the Gospel writers to see this scene with the eyes of those disciples and certainly through their witness.
Whilst the effect on the disciples is present in Sister Irène’s Icon there is something else that attracts me to it and it is something unusual. It concerns the figure of Elijah.
Traditionally the two representatives of the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah are shown as revered, wise and elderly men.
Moses represents the theme of deliverance which threads its way through the Old Testament and, Elijah the prophetic strand which points to a deliverer­ usually called a Messiah who will free the people of Israel from whatever yoke holds them back from true love and service of God.
 Sometimes this is the behaviour of their leaders – those Kings who did wicked, even demonic, things about whom we hear so much in the Scriptures – or it is about correcting and judging of sin which led to the people being variously exiled or driven back into slavery until they mended their ways.
By placing these two figures on either side of the figure of Jesus at the moment of his glorification we get a Triptych but always with the two figures pointing away from self towards the Christ in the middle.
This is because Jesus fulfils the hope and promise of deliverance – of freedom – of transformation of a community who, wayward and rebellious, nevertheless are claimed by God as his own.

So in the Icon both Moses and Elijah are pointing their hand towards Jesus. See, they are saying, this is one whom God has sent to free you and love you into his Kingdom.
Because Jesus is Transfigured then we, looking at him and making him the centre of  our lives, can be Transformed too.

Sister Irène  gives us a clue, I believe, not in the transformation of the disciples – that is yet to come when they understand better what has happened on this Mountain – not in them, but in Elijah.
He is almost always, as I say, painted as an old and venerable man whose wisdom came through a life that was often harsh, incredibly lonely and more often misunderstood but who, through experiencing God closely, becomes the great Prophet, calling people back to a life with God. 
In this Icon, however, Elijah is painted as a young man.
At Bec we were shown a number of possible representations but it was this which excited me most.
A young Elijah symbolised for me something essential about the Transfiguration – that it is about being Transformed by the glory and love of God in such a way that we are utterly changed.

Elijah as a young man is on the face of it a physical thing but spiritually it can be seen as a Transformation from within.
The more we see the glory and love of God as something that frees us, forgives us, redeems us and opens for us a new way of life, so our soul fizzes with new energy, new life – a life energized by God. This opens us to new possibilities, new adventures of faith and a renewed way of being true disciples.

Luke’s version of the Transfiguration tells us that while Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed.
And it was this change that I see startlingly portrayed in Elijah and with that a realization that this is at the heart of our relationship with Jesus.
We are called to be people of change- people who are renewed by our encounter and subsequent life with, in and through Jesus Christ. People who are unafraid to grow, indeed who long to grow and become more deeply involved the Christian adventure.
This change comes about when we turn our lives around towards the beauty of God, which as St. Paul tells us shines in our hearts and gives the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, in the face of Jesus Christ.

This is the message of the Transfiguration and it is personalized by that rather beautiful phrase, shines in our hearts.
God penetrates our hearts with light – with knowledge that in Jesus we can all be changed, transformed. We can be renewed, rejuvenated, made youthful again, because in the trials of life in this world with its pressures and relentless claims on our energy, especially at this time, this affects our spiritual centre which gets a bit askew. We become weary, dispirited, disorientated
Which, of course, is why Lent is such a Godsend.

It is a time to refresh our souls, to learn afresh about the mighty acts of God in Jesus Christ, about disciplining our lives through prayer and fasting and centring ourselves on God again. It’s about encouraging new growth in the Spirit. And new hope.
No wonder a writer of the Orthodox Church calls this a season of the springtime of the soul. The spiritual writer Thomas Hopko quotes a phrase from the Orthodox Lenten Liturgy which begins : The Lenten spring shines forth, The flower of repentance ­
He goes on to say: The Church welcomes the Lenten spring with a spirit of exultation. She greets the time of repentance with the expectancy and enthusiasm of a child entering a new and exciting experience. The tone …is one of brightness and light.

Lent is not about doom and gloom and grovelling – it is a time of rebirth renewal. It is an enthusiastic turning of our lives back to God and therefore a time of rejoicing.
We are bidden to put a new spring in our step and let the glory and love of God, shining not only from the face but also the heart of Jesus, burn away from our lives all that is not of God and replace it with a re-centring on God which is what repentance really means.

So as we approach the Lenten Journey we are given a glimpse of glory. Lent is a time of real Transformation and of being glorified as we are held in the beautiful glorious, totally stupendous Vision of Jesus on the Holy Mountain and so becoming filled with a longing to be there with Him. We are invited to be transformed through a response to God’s Glory which begins with thankfulness.
Thanksgiving is such an important part of our response to what God is doing for us in Jesus Christ, in our community and personal life. We give thanks in small and big ways.

It would be a good thing to use Lent as a time when we repent of negativity and concentrate instead on the positive things which are happening, from deeper care and kindness towards each other to the many opportunities we have to think and pray about what matters in our lives.  Not least, the many and varied signs in which God loves us. The call to return to God is a big sign of God’s love but so is the call to make life better for others through what might be called random acts of kindness.
When the story of this pandemic is told, it will include so much about how, with God holding us, we have not only transformed our neighbourhoods through such acts of kindness, but also discovered the transfiguration of what is important in our being human, true humanity shot through with God’s glory. Add to that the inspiration of service from carers, NHS workers, doctors and amazing people like Captain Sir Tom. Ordinary people who by simply showing goodness, determination, care and kindness. People like you!

The message of the Icon of the Transfiguration is to show us what ordinary lives, blessed by God, can be and how we can all be transformed, transfigured, when we live close to God in Jesus Christ.


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