The account of the Transfiguration is given us each year on this the 2nd Sunday of Lent. Each year we hear a different version of the account. This year the version is from the gospel of Matthew. Though there are differences between the three accounts from each of the gospels, there are clear similarities as well. Jesus and his disciples are on a mountain. There is the sense of being in solitude. There is a cloud. The inner luminosity of Jesus becomes apparent. The figures of Moses and Elijah are in the heart of the experience. The essential filial identity of Jesus as Son of the Father is revealed. The disciples are summoned to listen. And then, everything returns to ordinariness at the end.
Each of these aspects of the story are highly charged with Jewish symbolism. In the Jewish mind the mountain is the place both of encounter with God and the place on which the Law has been given by God to his people. The cloud is a figure used throughout Scripture to designate an actual meeting with God. Moses is significant given that he is the one who receives the Law of Yahweh precisely atop the mountain. Elijah is important given that he is regarded as the greatest of the prophets. Thus the writers are seeking to convey that Jesus’ true identity eclipses now the nature of the Law and that he fulfils the intent of the prophets of old. In Jesus, God has revealed something new. Both the ancient law and the ancient prophecy find their completion in this new revelation – the revelation of God in Jesus, himself, who experiences himself in a filial relationship with God.
The text, therefore, is a very dense theological narrative full of highly charged symbolism. Yet, not only is the account fascinating on its own. So also is the place in the gospels that it appears. For in all three gospels the account of Jesus’ transfiguration is linked to his impending Passion and Death. For this reason we read the account in Lent which is our time of preparation to celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection at Easter. It is this essential link between the Transfiguration with his Passion that is just as significant as the individual aspects of the account.
Is it simply that the Transfiguration acts as a re-assurance to the disciples so that whatever of the darkness they are about to experience they might have confirmation of his true identity? Or are the gospel writers seeking to demonstrate something far more profound? If the Transfiguration were simply an assurance to the apostles of Jesus’ true identity then how do we explain their later reactions at his arrest and death? So, the rest of the gospel narrative forces us to consider that something more is being proposed in the Transfiguration.
When we take into account the entire gospel narrative what seems to be proposed is a fundamental link between transfiguration and suffering. We think of suffering as entirely negative. And indeed suffering is a negative. It is not what we would want for ourselves or others. We are committed to the alleviation of suffering. And yet we are faced with the undeniable reality of suffering. To be human, to be incomplete, to be vulnerable, to be fragile means that we will never surpass the inevitability of suffering. It is this very vulnerability and fragility that Jesus himself takes on in his humanity. Yet, there is a possibility in the midst of suffering, and that possibility is something quite remarkable. There is a redemptive possibility in the midst of the experience of suffering, so that our suffering does not need to become simply a darkened tomb in which we are entrapped. In the midst of our journey into suffering something can shine forth out with a brilliance beyond expectation. I think this is one of the deepest meanings of the accounts of the Transfiguration when we set it within the gospel narrative as a whole.
How can I explain this redemptive possibility that shines forth a light with unmistakable in the midst of suffering? We have only to look at the face of someone who in the midst of their suffering has found through grace the foundation from which to continue to make decisions for faith, for love and for hope. I see them many times: faces etched with lines from many years of suffering, but faces which shine forth an unmistakable radiance because even in their suffering people have kept believing, kept loving, kept hoping.
There is nothing as beautiful as the face which demonstrates both suffering and love at one and the same time. This is the nature of genuine Christian beauty. Beauty from a Christian perspective is not merely aesthetic. Christian beauty is always redemptive. It is paschal in character. It is a beauty that emerges when light is affirmed in the midst of darkness, when life is affirmed in the face of death.
In those beautiful faces, fashioned by both suffering and love at one and the same time I recognise what the accounts of Jesus’ Transfiguration are seeking to teach us. Let us pause before such faces. Let us receive their revelation. And let us live, each in our own way, their possibility. These faces bear for us the meaning of Jesus’ Transfiguration just as they indicate to us the means by which we too are transfigured in Jesus. We, like him, are transfigured when in the midst of our suffering, we continue to love.
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