St. James by the Sea Episcopal Church, La Jolla

Swaths of rough white stucco surrounded the stained-glass windows at St. James by the Sea. The windows -- saints above and the life of Christ below -- were tastefully small, yet rendered dramatic through their depiction of deep shadow. After that, the chief impression was the dark of mahogany: rough and blocky in the rafters of the ceiling, smooth and carved in the woodwork surrounding the Sanctuary. (At least a third of that Sanctuary was filled by the choir, which processed with five acolytes, a verger, a five-member altar party, Reverend Randal Gardner, and Reverend Julie Christian.) Only the honey-colored Christus Rex -- hung behind the altar and surmounted by an aqua canopy -- broke the tone.

"O God," prayed Gardner at the Collect, "who, before the passion of your...Son, revealed His glory upon the holy mountain, grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of His countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross and be changed into His likeness from glory to glory."

The mountain was Mount Tabor; the revelation was the Transfiguration. But before the meditation on glory, Gardner gave a nod to the approach of Lent, the "season of penitence, for turning our lives around." When the children came forward before heading off to Sunday school, he gave them a project: "On a piece of paper...or on a computer...make the prettiest picture you can of the word 'Alleluia.' Take that word and fold it up very neatly, and put it away in a drawer someplace. Remember where you put it, so you can bring it out again on Easter -- because for the next 40 days, during the whole season of Lent, we won't use that word, 'Alleluia,' in church."

The Old Testament reading described Moses's transfiguration after he received the commandments on Mount Sinai: "the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God." So astonishing was his visage that he had to wear a veil, lest the Israelites be frightened.

Moses showed up at Christ's transfiguration, along with Elijah, as noted by the hymn that followed: "With Moses and Elijah nigh/ Th'incarnate Lord holds converse high/ And from the cloud the Holy One/ Bears record to the only Son." (Just when you thought the huge sound of both organ and choir couldn't get any huger, the fourth verse rang out a powerful countermelody.)

Saint Paul took those frightened Israelites to task in the second reading: "To this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside.... When one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed."

The Gospel told the story. Jesus took Peter, James, and John up on the mountain and was transfigured: "The appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.... A cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, 'This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to Him!'"

Author and artist Gertrude Mueller-Nelson gave the sermon; Gardner took a place in the congregation to listen. She began by asking, "What is the connection between the transfiguration and the agony in the garden? In both cases, Jesus takes the same three people with him." These three "begin to morph into types of ourselves: ordinary fellows, trying to get it. Ordinary guys who don't understand why Jesus has to suffer. They don't know how to handle mystery or the possibility of suffering or the threat of change. But transfiguration...means seeing things differently." She described iconic representations of the moment in which Christ was surrounded by an almond-shaped halo, formed from the overlap of two circles. "In that...overlap, traditionally, the religious experience occurs.... This is our world and heaven overlapping. This is when we resolve, for a moment, the opposites we love to cherish, where suffering and bad breaks also show us the love of God." And "once we've been knocked back and seen Christ, now we can really see one another, too. Now we can go forth to love and serve the Lord."

Music permeated the service: instrumentals, hymns sequences, and arrangements; sometimes simple, sometimes ornate. The late Larry King played the dedication concert on the church's pipe organ in 1976, and his arrangement of that Gospel text provided the Offertory Anthem. A high-drama performance from both choir and organ poured forth over taped sound effects reminiscent of old sci-fi films: keening minor chords; undulating, wandering tones. The effect was otherworldly.

What happens when we die?

"We remain engaged with life," said Gardner. "There is a transition from this body into some other kind of existence that is empowered by God's energy, God's life force. And I think we retain consciousness, or at least participate in consciousness with our unique identity intact."

St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church

743 Prospect Street, La Jolla

Denomination: Episcopal

Founded locally: 1907

Senior pastor: Randal Gardner

Congregation size: about 1300

Staff size: about 12

Sunday school enrollment: about 60

Annual budget: $1.4 million

Weekly giving: around $15,500

Singles program: no

Dress: fairly dressy, lots of jackets and ties

Diversity: mostly Caucasian

Sunday worship: Rite I, 7:30 a.m.; Rite II, 10 a.m.

Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Website: http:www.stjamesbythesea.org

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