Sermon preached at the Festival Service at St Giles’ Cathedral on Sunday 6th August 2023
Readings: Daniel 7.9-10,13-14; St Luke 9.28-36
In 1689 Bishop Alexander Rose, Bishop of Edinburgh, left St Giles’ Cathedral unwilling to swear allegiance to William of Orange and took much of the congregation down to Carrubber’s Close where he founded Old St Paul’s Church – one of the first congregations in the Scottish Episcopal Church. In 2009, having sung in the choir for over thirty years, I made the same journey – but for very different reasons. I am delighted to be back in St Giles’ today for, although I have been in this pulpit on many occasions over the last 45 years welcoming people to concerts, I have never preached from it. I am most grateful to the minister for his invitation.
We have just heard the story of the Transfiguration. A story which prefigures the ascension of our Lord and, indeed, his resurrection, and a story which gives us a glimpse of the eternal. On the mountain as they pray, three of the disciples, Peter, James and John see Jesus, his face changed and his clothes dazzling white, talking to Moses and Elijah; Moses, the great giver of the law to the Hebrew peoples, the giver of the ten commandments, and Elijah, one of the greatest prophets who did not actually die but was swept up to heaven in a chariot. They are discussing his departure, a journey that began with crucifixion but ended with resurrection and ascension, the dazzling reminiscent of Daniel’s vision of the Ancient One.
Peter gets very excited about this and his reaction is to try to capture the moment by making three dwellings – three tents one for each of them. I think in 21st Century terms this is like Peter asking for a selfie with the three of them. By trying to capture the moment he could potentially destroy it. He is, of course, prevented by them being overshadowed by a cloud from which we hear the voice of God. The disciples are then sure that Jesus is the Son of God and they are prepared for his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension.
Moments like this need to be savoured to be captured. In the film The Shawshank Redemption there is a moment when Andy played by Tim Robbins, a trusted prisoner in a US Penitentiary, is working in the prison office sorting a delivery of second hand books for the library. He comes across a record of Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro. He puts the record on the record player and the most beautiful soprano duet plays out – the letter duet Sull’aria….che soave zeffiretto.
He locks the office door and plays it through the loud-speaker system to the whole prison. Everyone stops what they are doing, prisoners, prison guards – they are transfixed by the music – it is just so beautiful – so beautiful in contrast to the ugliness and violence of the prison. The narrator Red, played by Morgan Freeman, recalls, “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about…….. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it.”
I like to think that the Transfiguration is like that moment. The disciples get a foretaste of the resurrection, they get a glimpse of heaven; the disciples understand that Jesus is the Son of God. After Andy has played the Mozart duet to the entire prison he is put in solitary confinement for a week as a punishment. When he gets out he tells his fellow-prisoners that he has had a great week with Mozart. Incredulous, they ask how he was allowed to have the record player in solitary confinement. Mozart was not on the record it was in his head and in his heart. What is in your head and what is in your heart cannot be taken away from you by prison authorities. He had captured the moment in his head and in his heart.
I think that that is the transformative, ‘transfigurative’ power of the universal language of the arts. I think that that is why the Edinburgh International Festival has had such an important role in bringing together the people of Europe and indeed of much of the rest of the world after six years of world war. Until two years ago one could have said that the entire run of the Festival had happened in a peaceful Europe. Sadly that cannot be said today but we can hope and pray that, when the conflict in Ukraine is over, the arts may have a role in reconciliation.
Ironically it was the very power of the arts and particularly the power of drama that made theatre illegal in Scotland for over two hundred years after the Reformation. Our friend John Knox lurking by the steps to the minister’s vestry would have known the play Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaits and would have seen the power of it when it was first performed at Linlithgow Palace in 1539. Written by the then Lord Lyon, Sir David Lindsay, it was a satire, or rather an exposé, of the corruption within the three estates: the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the Merchant Classes. It caused King James V to summon his court and demand action, such was its power.
The play was later burned as it was so scandalous but one copy survived and turned up in Glasgow 400 years later. In the 1948 Edinburgh International Festival an adaptation by Robert Kemp was produced by Tyrone Guthrie in the Assembly Hall with a cast of brilliant Scottish Actors led by Duncan Macrae. It may not have had the same effect as that performance to the Scottish Court in 1539 but it certainly stayed in the hearts and minds of the audience for many years.
My father was in the then recently formed Edinburgh University Singers who sang the chorus and he could recite all Duncan Macrae’s lines until his dying day. Tyrone Guthrie stayed in Morningside for the run and travelled into the Mound every day on the Number 23 Bus. He loved eavesdropping on conversations. One day two Morningside ladies were talking on the top deck and one was telling the other about a local scandal. The other’s response at the end of the story was “My! My! My!” to which she added as she thought more about it, in language that could have come straight out of the Three Estates “Fy! Fy! Fy!”
John Knox was determined that the only persuasive theatrical power to which the people of Scotland would be exposed was the power of the preaching of his reformed ministers. The Church of Scotland maintained this stance until well into the 18th Century. How lucky we are that this has all changed but I still wonder whether John Knox could have believed that this city could be so transformed for three weeks with so much musical and theatrical activity.
As we reflect on the Transfiguration this morning; on Jesus discussing his departure, his journey to the cross and beyond, to resurrection and ascension, we can reflect on where we go from here, as a church, as a festival, as a city and as a nation. We can use moments in the next three weeks of festival-going to guide us in our reflections; moments that we can savour, moments that bring us together, moments that give us a glimpse of eternity, moments that must not be spoiled by erecting tents or taking selfies, moments of history, moments of mystery. These moments may also be in this place; in this holy temple, where we gather in prayer and worship, with music and ritual to ask God’s blessing on this Festival.