In His outward appearance He was like us; for in His boundless
Love He took it upon Himself to become a creature, yet without
Changing (his Divinity), and He became the Image, Type, and Symbol
Of Himself: He has revealed Himself symbolically out of His inner being;
Through Himself who is visible, He has drawn the whole creation
To Himself who is invisible and totally hidden.
(P.G. 91, St. Maximus Confessor)
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. The word comes to us from the Latin derivative transfigurare and it means to change form, appearance, shape, or nature. The Greek variant is metamorphosisand it means the same. Ovid uses it when he describes the history of cyclical world transformations from the dawn of time to the deification of Julius Caesar. St. Matthew records the transfiguration of Christ before James, John, and Peter in the 17th Chapter of his Gospel. St. Luke, describing the same event, tells us that the appearance of Jesus was altered and his clothes became dazzling white. (St. Luke ix. 28) The point is that before His Resurrection from the Dead, Jesus Christ temporarily underwent a profound metamorphosis in and through which eternity and time intersected in His Sacred Person to reveal a vision of the life that was to come.
In the Church’s history little is made of this great feast. Theologians have remained silent about it and poets have virtually ignored it. It seems to be more popular in the Greek East than in the Latin West. Titian, the 16th-century Venetian painter, painted a version of it for the silver high altar of the Church of San Salvatore or San Salvador in Venice. He depicts the Transfiguration in a whirlwind of motion, power, intensity, and passion. The upper section of the painting depicts the heavenly realm. Christ stands at the center as the centrifugal point of unity and meaning. His left foot moves forward as if out of Heaven with His right foot ahead and grounded on earth. With His left hand, He reaches up to carry down the truth of the Father and with His right hand, He releases it like seed on the earth. All movement emanates from Him. To Christ’s right, Moses precedes him in time and space holding the Ten Commandments. To Christ’s left, Elijah’s face is partly concealed as he awaits news of his role for the ongoing creation. Beneath the three Saints Peter, James, and John are thrown down from the heavenly event and onto the earth that seems too cramped for them and us! Peter attempts to shield himself with his tunic. John has fallen back and nearly crushes us. James attempts to pray for mercy in the midst of the unknown. Christ stands out as the luminous Word made flesh. His immovable stability establishes His mission and what must transpire from Heaven to earth, from the spiritual to the natural, and from God to Man.
Prior to the account of the Transfiguration that we read today, we hear Jesus say, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (St. Matthew xvii 24-26)Christ prophesies His own suffering and death and then goes on to insist that the life of a disciple will involve self-denial and sacrifice, the loss of one thing for the gain of another, and the hope of new life that can be won only after spiritual death. St. Luke’s Gospel punctuates today’s event with a further warning. Jesus says, Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of man be ashamed when He comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (St. Luke ix 26)Not only will discipleship cost everything worldly; it will demand confidence, faith, and assurance in Christ’s saving life and power. From here on in the nature of Christ’s life in relation to all others will be a burden too heavy for anyone but Himself to bear. Christ’s presence here in Transfigured Form overturns, overpowers, and overcomes all human respectability. His own Apostles will be shaken, stirred, and pushed off the canvas of Transfiguration that intends to redeem the world through suffering and death.
So perhaps for this reason, He reveals Himself in an extraordinary and paranormal way to a few select friends. Some commentators have said that if Christ had left the earth in the moments following His Transfiguration, He would have saved Himself a lot of trouble. He would have returned to God as Moses and Elijah had done. For this is what they did at the end of the Transfiguration appearance. They disappeared but He remained. They return to the Father but He has much more work to do. Christ’s Transfiguration heralds and trumpets the deep truth of His unfolding mission. Here we find the beginning of the journey up to Jerusalem. It begins in Heaven. It will descend into suffering and death. It will rise up and return all men to God. Jesus knows that in time and space and before the eyes of all men, He who is the Logos of God, the Word and Wisdom of God made flesh, He who is made to reveal God’s will, plan, and purpose must derive His sure and certain strength, confidence, and trust from the Father. Only beginning here in Transfiguration do we find that courage and zeal and that wisdom and love that intend to carry out the plans of the Father, come what may. Jesus knows that suffering and death are the fruits of man’s misplaced desire and passion. From the wellspring of the Father’s Omnipotence the Son must suffer and die by the power of God.
Yet, we must behold the Transfigured Christ to prepare for what comes next. With Peter, and James, and John we must be overtaken, overpowered, overrun, and outdone. The powerful presence of the Transfigured Christ must pull us up and throw us out of the normal course of common life. Like Peter, James, and John we must be pushed to the periphery of the canvas of human life in order to make room for what Christ must do. Christ is our center and from that center that rules and governs the universe, we must observe the enactment of our redemption from Heaven to earth through the heart of Christ.
Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James, and John. This is not an end but another beginning. Jesus had gone up into the mountain to pray. And as He was praying, the appearance of His countenance was altered, and His raiment became dazzling white. And behold, two men talked with Him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His departure, which He was to accomplish at Jerusalem. (Ibid, 29-31) Moses had led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt into exodus. Elijah had guided the people’s descendants out of slavery to sin into hope for deeper deliverance. Both now learned of the fulfillment of God’s promises that would be accomplished in Christ. Moses precedes and Elijah follows. History needs redemption. Law convicts and Prophecy hopes. The past and the future will be redeemed through the Word that Moses and Elijah heard. The past and the future will be redeemed through the Word made Flesh that Peter, James, and John have known. Peter hears the Father’s blessing. And there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him. (Ibid, 35)
The redemption of human nature begins on the heights of Mount Tabor. From the heights of intimate union with God, Jesus will carry the glory of the Father into suffering death. Jesus must identify with man’s sickness to work in a cure. The glory of the Lord will neither flee nor abandon the horror of man’s illness. Christ’s whole personality is suffused with the celestial majesty; His dress shone with strange glory. (The Church Year, p. 264)This is the heavy garment of glory that Christ will put on in order to combat all manner of evil. He will combat His enemies largely with the silence of glory. He will suffer the effects of sin gladly with the mercy of glory. He will take into Himself the heaviness of corruption that moves men to hate God and His goodness. He will feel perfectly the state of sinners who have not come to see their sin. He will long for all men’s salvation in and through their rejection of it. The glory is what must remain powerfully present, alive, and radiant as He proceeds to fashion salvation. In and through the glory He will raise up a new and glorious body that will become the meeting place of man and God.
After Christ’s Transfiguration, when the three Apostles, in fear and terror prostrated on the ground, lifted up their eyes, they saw only Jesus. (God’s Human Face: Schonborn, p. 132) Him whom they had beheld in blinding splendor only moments earlier, communing with two heavenly friends, now they see alone. They see Jesus. Jesus’ human countenance, the face of Jesus of Nazareth, holds in itself the complete mystery of God. (Idem)Here is the balanced brilliance of God’s glory. The Transfigured Jesus must now temper and adjust His Person to minister to His friends. He must descend from the mount and lift up his fallen and bruised Apostles. And so we shall see glory in the One who bears their burden in sadness, pain, agony of soul and body, and death. We shall see glory also in unabated love and uninterrupted passion for all men’s salvation.
Through Himself who is visible, He has drawn the whole creationto Himself who is invisible and totally hidden. (Idem)Now, He is on Mount Tabor. Next, He is healing a paralytic boy. Soon, He will unjustly suffer and die. And through it all there is one constant --the glory of the Lord. This glory is seen only by those who will journey from the visible to the invisible. It can be seen in ecstatic mystical ascent. It can be endured in the crushing blow of being pushed to the outer edges of significance. It can be seen in suffering, pain, and death. The glory can always be perceived. God’s Glory enables us to retain what was learned in joy in use for mourning, and to bring to our hours of happiness a quickened perception of sorrow’s purifying discipline. The outward signs of transfiguration may pass, but its inner power remains with its fortifying grace to help us, when we pass through the waters of affliction and valley of the shadow of death, to regain something more than its glory in the power of endless life. (The Church Year, p. 266) Amen.
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