A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on August 6, 2023 by Revd Angela Sheard
The former archbishop of El Salvador, Saint Oscar Romero, is one of the most well-known martyrs of the 20th century. On 24th March 1980, he was assassinated while saying Mass in the chapel of the Divine Providence Hospital, where he lived in a simple room during his time as archbishop. Romero is remembered as being an outspoken opponent of the social injustice in El Salvador and the violent Salvadoran Civil War – opposition which, in the end, cost him his life. But more recently, his theological vision has been returned to and celebrated as one of the foundations of Latin American liberation theology.
Why enter the theological world of Oscar Romero today, you might ask? Well, the day before he died, Romero preached his last Sunday homily. In this homily, he contemplated the lyrics of a song called ‘Gloria’ that he had commissioned for the upcoming patronal festival from the talented young musician Guillermo Cuellar. Here’s an English translation of some of these lyrics:
The songs reverberate, explosive with joy
I am going to meet my People in the Cathedral.
Thousands of voices unite this day,
To sing on our patronal feast.
But the gods of power and of money
So now you, Lord, are the first
To raise your arm against oppression.
The clue to the subject of these celebrations is near the end – the patronal festival of El Salvador is celebrated each year on this day, 6th August, the feast of the Transfiguration. Romero also chose to release three of his four pastoral letters as archbishop on this day. It is no coincidence that, in Oscar Romero’s theology of liberation, the transfiguration could be seen as a key that unlocks the meaning of the scriptures. Romero’s theology is one that was formed amidst the struggle and suffering of the people of El Salvador, but I think it has profound relevance for us in 21st century Britain, as we grapple with enormous national and global struggles in very different circumstances.
So how did Oscar Romero interpret the transfiguration? The first, and perhaps most important, is that he placed the story of the people of El Salvador within the story of salvation – within the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The transfiguration is a moment in the scriptures when God’s glory is revealed in the presence of five key figures on Mount Tabor – Moses, Elijah, Peter, James and John. Moses and Elijah, thought by many to represent the Law and the Prophets, also represent a pilgrim people – both of these figures were sustained by the appearance of God’s glory during their long travels in the wilderness. Peter, James and John, who are also on a pilgrimage of following Jesus, are currently having their own experience of God’s glory just before Jesus turns his face to Jerusalem, plunging them into the wilderness of Gethsemane and Calvary. In the same way, the people of God in El Salvador in the 1980s, and we as the people of God in London in 2023, are a pilgrim people. In the transfiguration, we too are invited into the company of disciples on the mountain, to experience the powerful presence of God. We are called both to be sustained on our journey and also to be challenged by the bright light which shines into the many places of our world where ‘the gods of power and money’ lurk in hidden shadows.
So, we might see ourselves as spectators of the transfiguration, as pilgrim people on the mountain top seeking the glory of God. But our connection with the transfigured Christ has another, more intimate dimension. Romero describes this by reflecting on the expression ‘Son of Man’ – it appears in Matthew’s version of the Transfiguration, when the disciples are told at the bottom of the mountain that they must tell no-one of what they have seen “until the Son of Man has risen from the dead”. And it appears also in our reading from Daniel, as “one like a human being” who receives power from the Ancient One. The original Hebrew word may be translated as “son of Adam” – in one sense this term applies to every human person. But in the history of Israel, this term came to be applied to either specific figures like the prophets, or to the people as a whole. When speaking of Christ as the ‘Son of Adam’, Romero uses this latter meaning – “Christ is the head, paradigm and exemplar of a redeemed human race”. All this means that we are not only spectators of the transfiguration – we are called to be transfigured ourselves, to be changed by glory, as members of that body of which Christ is the head. In Romero’s words, “This lamp of the transfigured Christ wants to transfigure our people”.
How can this happen for us in the church today? Well, perhaps a good place to start here is at the end of this passage, with the words of God: “This is my son, my Beloved. Listen to him!”. As the church, we are transfigured as we listen to the teachings of Christ, and as we realize that every person, every child of Adam is the Beloved of God. We are called to this conversion, this change of heart, from the moment of our baptism onwards (the baptism of Jesus is when we also hear those words of God: “This is my son, my Beloved. Listen to him!). This is a conversion not only of our thoughts but of our words and deeds. We are called to echo and amplify that voice of Jesus that we hear in the scriptures and in the prophets of our own time and in the poor of our world. We are called to amplify that voice that is the Way, and our transfigured faces must translate into holy lives. We are called to walk the way of the cross, knowing that this journey ends in resurrection. This is the mission of the church – to walk alongside the world bearing the hope of our transfiguration. The transfiguration is God’s plan for the liberation for our world. This is the ultimate destination of salvation history.
There is one final feature of Romero’s theology which I think it’s important to reflect on, when we think about how transfiguration might happen for us today. I think that we are called to be transfigured not only as individuals but together. We are called to listen to and to amplify the voice of the Beloved together. This cannot be done without releasing the insights and the gifts of us all. Earlier I mentioned that Romero released three of his four pastoral letters on the feast of the Transfiguration – his fourth and final pastoral letter was one that he wrote not by himself, but in collaboration with the people of El Salvador. Romero had realized that his theological commitments needed to be reflected not only in his ideas but in the way that he did theology. In preparing his final pastoral letter he took the unusual step of giving out a questionnaire to a wide variety of people to get their views on critical issues, and carefully weighing the responses. The people of El Salvador contributed directly to the drafting process of this letter, and Romero shared authorship of this letter with them. This was the living out of his conviction that all the people of God share the prophetic gifts of Christ – but these gifts can only be used in all their fullness if the
church embraces the gifts of open dialogue and consultation with the whole body of Christ.
This collaborative theology-making is also part of our conversion here and now – it is part of our transfiguration as the whole people of God. We are all theologians – we are all called to read the signs of the times, to notice the movement of the Spirit of God working amidst the unjust structures of our world. We are all called to say what we see, to contribute to the theological conversation of the church and to walk together in solidarity with our suffering world. We are all called to be people who witness to the hope that history itself is being transfigured forever – that the oppression of the poor is being transformed, moment by moment, into liberation and empowerment.
Oscar Romero read the lyrics of Guillermo Cuellar’s hymn ‘Gloria’ days before he died, but he never heard this song which he commissioned performed live. Since then, it has been performed in churches across El Salvador and beyond – and I will end with some more of its beautiful lyrics:
Now, Lord, You Can Be Glorified
Just as Before There on Mount Tabor
When You See Your People Transformed