Always on the lookout for a new show to whittle those last thirty minutes before I fall asleep at night, last week I started watching the BBC/Netflix production, Peaky Blinders. Set in Birmingham, England just after World War I, the series tells the story of the Shelbys, a small-time gangster family of Irish and Turkish descent. The protagonist and leader of the crew, Thomas, fought for the English crown during the war, but he returned from the battlefields of France changed. His sister remembers that, before he left, Thomas “loved a lot,” and his sapphire eyes and gentle facial lines witness the memory of a former tenderness. However, those soft features now appear in stark relief to his more ruthless aspirations, those blue eyes turning gray behind a tailored, three-piece suit; a trench coat; a pocket watch; and a flat, peaked cap with a line of razor blades sewn into the brim. The narrative arc is a familiar one, but the series polishes that worn mob genre by overlaying dissonant guitars and coarse-throated vocals atop images of the industrial era’s coal-burning filth; its characters and “hipster antique” aesthetic has hooked me.
Without giving away any spoilers, in one scene Thomas awaits the approach of a rival gang behind the bar of his favorite pub, The Garrison. With the neighborhood cleared out in anticipation of this melee, he pours himself an Irish Whiskey and taps a cigarette from a pack. Striking a match and lighting the cigarette, the barkeep enters and observes, “She’s gone then, isn’t she? You aren’t accustomed to not getting what you want, are you, Tommy?…‘Do it, or else,’ you [say] to everybody, and, yet, it’s funny: everybody around here still wants you to win this battle. You are bad men, but you’re our bad men.”
The camera then drifts to the bar top, and Thomas Shelby’s reflection takes a drag before announcing, “She’s in the past, and the past is not my concern. The future is no longer my concern, either.”
“What is you concern, Tommy?” the barman asks.
The camera lifts to the young Shelby’s face and he explains, “One minute…‘The Soldier’s Minute.’ In a battle that’s all you get” – cutting now to scenes with his lover, images of his adolescent brother, and the approaching marauders, he continues, but hollow-eyed – “One minute is everything – [everything] at once – and everything before, is nothing…and everything after… nothing… nothing in comparison to that one…” moment of consequence.[i]
Every year on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany we read stories of the Transfiguration, bookending this season’s themes of that “dazzling” brightness who is the Christ, born with a star and resurrected with the dawn.[ii] The Transfiguration events occur six days after Peter confesses that Jesus is, “the Messiah,” immediately after which, Jesus tells his disciples that he must suffer; that he must be rejected; and that he must be killed; and, then, after three days, rise again.[iii]
With only the transition, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power,” Jesus takes Peter, James, and John, “up a high mountain apart” from their friends and fellow followers, where, indeed, they witness the kingdom’s power, for Jesus “was transfigured before them.”[iv] Mark writes that Jesus’ “clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”[v] This event resembles Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai, when “carrying the two tablets of the covenant in his hand,” his “face shone because he had been talking with God,” and Mark makes especially clear this connection with the prophet’s sudden appearance on the mountaintop, along with Jesus and the prophet Elijah.[vi]
Peter then says to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here,” and he suggests that they “make three dwellings, one for [Jesus], one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”[vii] Before Jesus can respond, Mark notes the disciples’ terror, and a cloud overcomes the scene, from which a voice speaks. Unlike at Jesus’ baptism in this Gospel, when a voice from heaven speaks directly to Jesus, saying, “You are my son, the Beloved,” here the voice plainly speaks for the benefit of all the disciples, declaring, “This is my son, the Beloved,” and adding to the baptismal announcement a command: “Listen to him!”[viii] The cloud suddenly clears, and Mark offers no dialogue from Jesus, only the concluding note, “As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”[ix]
During this morning’s baptisms, I anointed the foreheads of the newly baptized with oil in the sign of a cross, an action known as “chrismation”…chrismation. During the chrismation, the baptizer proclaims, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.”[x] This proclamation echoes the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism, as well as the voice from the Transfiguration cloud, both of which declare Jesus as God’s Beloved. The Australian book of Common Prayer explains, “The…use of…chrism restores an ancient baptismal ceremony. It evokes a rich variety of biblical imagery: the anointing of kings (1 Samuel 16), the royal priesthood (1 Peter 2), the seal of the saints (Revelation 7), [all of which] is traditionally associated with the Holy Spirit. Its relationship with the name “Christ,” [meaning] “the anointed one,” reminds us that [every] baptism is related to [Jesus’] baptism.”[xi] Therefore, by receiving and witnessing this anointing, we accept our share in the anointed One, our Christ.
The baptismal anointing and proclamation sets in clear relief the experience we will share in just a few days, when to mark “the beginning of a Holy Lent,” we will have ashes pressed into our foreheads in the very same, cruciform shape, but with that very different declaration: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”[xii] Instead of rich olive oil sweetened with balsam, we compound our ashes from the burned remains of last year’s Palm Sunday fronds, a bittersweet symbol of even our highest hopes’ vulnerability. Thereby, while baptism announces our eternal nature, Ash Wednesday announces our mortal nature.
Admittedly, The Episcopal Church does not mark or manage Sunday urgency especially well. Our worship prefers predictability to spontaneity, and we find comfort in the familiar form of our prayers, rather than the varied styles (and quality) of extemporaneous petitions. More personally, by my own nature and inclination I find security in our repetitions and rhythms, which, in my best moments, allows me to set my spirit in our praises’ steady stream and retreat into God’s presence. However, such orderliness and such retreat can also call our attention away from the moments of consequence we might otherwise recognize in our worship, from the prophetic pulpit, to the baptismal font, to the Communion table…moments of consequence.
Recognize, though, that the Soldier’s Minute and the Transfiguration mount do not draw their power from urgency alone. Rather, the consequence of both depends upon the true contradictions that inspire them: the hope of peace, and the consent to war; deep blue eyes and razor-blade brims; the continuity with our own experience that soundtrack creates, and the distance those shirtless laborers shoveling coal into street-facing furnaces makes clear. Likewise, we hear the proclamation of Messiah, and, then, the prediction of the Passion; we hear the very voice of God upon the mountaintop, and, then, the silence commanded upon the descent to the valley; we see the brightness of Jesus, and, then, the foreboding shadow of the cross.
Now, these contradictions The Episcopal Church does mark and manage especially well, even in only the stretch of these four days we now begin:
You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
These consequential moments draw their power from the truth witnessed and expressed by these contradictions, for we are forever and finite; we are loved and limited; we are blessed and burdened.
In the story of the Transfiguration, Mark employs the verb tense known as the “divine passive,” as in, “he was transfigured.”[xiii] The divine passive relocates the action and agency of the story, from Jesus on earth, to God in heaven. This is the same verb tense Mark will employ at Jesus’ resurrection, when the young man at the tomb announces, “he has been raised.”[xiv] In this way, Jesus’ orientation toward God becomes a model for us and these contradictory truths we mark and manage: with our ashen brow and our anointed countenance we seek both acceptance of our nature and openness to God. Thereby, we re-understand our limitations not as a measure of our worth, but, in our belovedness, our brokenness becomes an opportunity for God’s Grace.
Generous with one another and kind to ourselves, I pray that we would be Transfigured in the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.