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Sunday 14 February 2021: Next Before Lent

Liminal Spaces: Making of Saints

2 Kings 2:1-12; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

By Shemil Mathew

Anglican Chaplain to Oxford Brookes University, General Secretary Anglican Minority Ethnic Network (AMEN)

Context: a University College Chapel

Aim: to encourage people to think about their encounters with God

Today, the world celebrates St Valentine’s Day. St Valentine, of course, is a Christian saint. Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion commemorate the feast of St Valentine on February 14th. But it is one of those rare feast days celebrated more outside the church than within. As in the case of many of the ancient Christian saints, there are multiple narratives about the life and death of St Valentine. Contradictory as they may be, every single one speaks of an ordinary person transformed by an encounter with the divine or God, and this encounter affirmed his faith so profoundly, he was ready to give his life for what he believed in.

ENCOUNTERING THE DIVINE: SCRIPTURE

The Old and New Testament readings for today speak of two interconnected liminal spaces many centuries apart. In the Old Testament reading, we see the arrival of chariots and horses of fire and Elijah’s departure from this world. In the Gospel reading, we see Elijah and Moses appearing to Jesus. Both events are transformative for those directly involved. Elisha, who witnesses Elijah taken to heaven, is empowered to lead the prophets of Israel, whereas Jesus experiences a literal transfiguration, where He is affirmed by the Father’s love and endorsed as the son of God in front of His disciples. The response of the onlookers of these events – Elijah’s disciples on the other side of Jordan and Jesus’ disciples with him on the mountain – is also almost identical: confused, in shock, unable to process what is happening. Elijah’s disciples enter a phase of denial, refusing to believe that their master is no longer with them, sending out a search party to find him. Peter, Jesus’ disciple, shocked and filled with fear, suggests to Jesus that they should abandon their ministry and mission, settling down on top of the mountain instead.

REASON AND FAITH

Liminal spaces are places where we encounter God, where we get a taste of the eschatological hope. Liminal spaces in our lives may not be an experience of chariots of fire, but the places in our lives where we experience the touch of the divine. It may be a moment when you are engaged in an activity deemed spiritual or religious, such as reading Scripture or receiving the Eucharist. It may be an encounter in nature when you are touched by the beauty of God’s creation, which shouts his glory. Or the moment may be more intimate or personal when you are overwhelmed by God’s love reflected in your love for a romantic partner or a child. These are the moments when you have an awareness of the Divine.

Liminal spaces, by definition, are not irrational, but supra-rational spaces that enable a transformation which is not only supernatural but also supra-rational – not against reason, but beyond reason. I believe the Biblical word for supra-rational is faith. If we seek a reasonable explanation for the experience of liminal spaces without faith, then, like Elijah’s disciples, we will be searching in the wilderness for many days. The paradox of the post-secular age that we live in is the decreasing number of people professing a faith (any faith, not just Christianity), yet an increasing number of people claiming an interest in spirituality. Spirituality without faith is wandering in the wilderness, looking for that which cannot be found.

On the other hand, these liminal spaces, these moments touching the Divine, when understood with faith as times when we are reoriented to and affirmed in our status as a child of God, remind us of our calling to work for the expansion of His kingdom. These liminal spaces are not a place to hide comfortably away from our duty of bringing the Good News. These life-changing moments are, as Paul reminds us in the epistle reading, not only God-oriented but also God-initiated, enabling us to reflect the glory of God’s face.

BEING A TRANSFORMATIVE PRESENCE: BEING A SAINT

We have no record of what liminal spaces St Valentine encountered, and we ourselves may never have an experience of meeting chariots and horses of fire. But if we, instead of rationalising, recognise and cherish our encounters with God in our own liminal spaces, we too can be transformed and be a transformative presence.

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