The Tabor Light

Good morning on this last Sunday of Epiphany. Lent begins this week, on Ash Wednesday. It comes very early this year!

We have two "welcomes" this morning, the first to Victoria, who is joining us today as our Interim Organist and Music Director. We are so grateful to have you with us and we’ve been looking forward to today. Welcome also to the Frank family--not new to St. James. We’ll be baptizing their son Joshua today. His sisters were also baptized here. You chose a lovely day for this, the last day of the Epiphany, the season of light and hope. 

The last Sunday of the Epiphany is the day we read the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. I cannot preach this without mentioning the windows here in our north transept showing this story. We call them the Quaid Windows after William Quaid, former parishioner. His wife commissioned these in his memory. Mr. Quaid is buried in our graveyard. He’s the one who famously rode with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War. Much later he served in Washington DC and, like so many of our parishioners, lived a remarkable life of service to his community and country. He was even the youngest person to run (albeit unsuccessfully) for the New York State senate, at 21 years old.

You have to hand it to Mrs. Quaid for picking a location and story that she knew would draw attention to her husband every year. And by the way, you’ll notice it doesn’t match the other windows in this section of the church. That was controversial. Another design had been made for that window that would have looked more like the others. But a church is the reflection as much of design and original intent as it is of the wishes of the woman (or man) who gives the largest donation! So remember that when you consider your gift for the Capital Campaign!

These many years later, I think we can all say we’re grateful for this memorial and for Mr. and Mrs. Quaid.


The Transfiguration of Jesus is a well known story, told in three of our four Gospels. Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain, where he is turned radiant -- transfigured -- before them. This was probably on Mt Tabor, in the Jezreel Valley, a large flat (other than this mountain) stretch of land between Galilee in the north and Jerusalem in the south. Since the second century it’s been a popular pilgrimage site; our group from St. James visited there last summer on our tour of the Holy Land. 

If it was, for Jesus in the story, a place to escape the chaos of life in the villages below, it kind of became that for our group as well. We weren’t originally scheduled to visit Mt. Tabor at all, but we went there because our visit to a holy site in the West Bank village of Nablus was canceled due to some unrest in the area. You kind of feel, when over there, an eerie resemblance to life in the 1st century with all the political skirmishes and places to avoid. Jesus was forever changing routes, not for dissimilar reasons.

Once you get up there, though, Mt. Tabor is an absolutely beautiful, set apart, and peaceful place. Much as I imagine it must have been 2000 years ago.

In the Gospel story, once he and the disciples reach the summit Jesus is transfigured before them. He becomes radiant with light. Suddenly alongside him appear Moses and Elijah, prophets and leaders from the Hebrew Scriptures. Then a voice from heaven, echoing the voice that spoke similar words at his baptism: “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.”


This is one of those rare Gospel stories that’s interpreted in starkly different ways across the Christian world. For those churches that stem from the East and what was once Constantinople in modern day Turkey, about half of Christianity, the Transfiguration of Jesus is as important if not more so than the Crucifixion. It’s sometimes said that what the Crucifixion is in the Western Church, the Transfiguration is in the East. It’s featured in their icons, historic sermons, it’s in some of their most famous basilicas like the St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Desert and St. Apollinaire in Classe in Ravenna, Italy. 

It’s not just that they feature this story in a way we don’t tend to, they see a wholly different meaning in it. For us, it’s a statement of Jesus’ divinity, and authority as Son of God. It comes six days after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, and so serves as confirmation of that. We’re beholding Jesus, set apart, and different, from us. 

But many Christians see it also as a story affirming the divinity that’s in us, as well. Gregory Palamas, Eastern mystic of the 14th century, coined the phrase Tabor Light--the light that was manifest that day in Jesus on the mountain, and which we all carry. Here’s what he said in a famous sermon on this day, over 700 years ago: 

Let us, considering the Mystery of the Transfiguration of the Lord … strive to be illumined by this Light ourselves and encourage in ourselves love and striving towards the Unfading Glory and Beauty, purifying our spiritual eyes of worldly thoughts and refraining from perishable and quickly passing delights and beauty which darken the garb of the soul and lead to … everlasting darkness. Let us be freed … by the illumination and knowledge of the … ever-existing Light of our Savior transfigured on [Mt] Tabor.

Whenever I baptize a child, like we’ll do Joshua today, I’m reminded of a theological legacy of the Western church, Original Sin, the notion that we’re all born into a state that guarantees we will make mistakes. It’s in our nature to do so, and no one escapes that. Looking at the world, it’s hard to argue with that. It comes to my mind at baptism because it’s part of our baptism liturgy--subtle, but it’s in there.

But also in all the vows and promises we’re about to hear is the conviction that we can rise above this. That within each of us is a light that has the power to transform or transfigure us into people who can be Christlike -- healing, forgiving, making the world a better place for our presence in it. 

As we’ll say over and over in just a moment, all this happens only with God’s help. But the light in Christ is the same light that’s in us, the Tabor light. What a glorious reminder on this last Sunday of Epiphany, season of light. Amen.