The Transfiguration Trap

Sun 07 Feb

There are parts of the Bible I try to avoid.  When the 3 year lectionary [the following of which is a new marker of orthodoxy] throws up the transfiguration I quickly look for the alternative options.  Like Waitangi Day.  Or the fishing story in Luke 5.  Or anything, so help me God.

Now don’t look at me askance.  I know what I know.  I know you avoid passages from the Bible too.  All you shell-fish lovers.  All you blenders of fabrics.  All you un-subservient wives, non-patriarchal husbands, and disobedient children.

And, just for the record, I haven’t met a Christian yet who doesn’t give higher priority to some parts of the Bible, and lower priority to other parts.  Even if you believe the Scriptures are the infallible, verbatim, words of a human-like omnipotent deity… you are valuing some of the words more than others!

So, transfiguration...  Why do I avoid it?  Well, it’s not because I don’t think it happened [most good stories are in the category of never actually happening].  And it’s not because it only involves the blokes [the Prodigal Son is also a story devoid of women].  And it’s not because the fundamentalist end of the Christian continuum have given a ‘definitive’ definition of what it’s all about [like they try with the resurrection].  Indeed fundamentalists seem, like the rest of it, to be pretty mystified by it too.

No, it’s because it seemingly has no ‘go-and-do-likewise’ ending.  There’s no obvious application to how we might live kinder, more just and loving lives.  The transfiguration seems simply to be a kind of believe-it-or-not-this-happened-to-Jesus thing that has no earthly relevance to anyone else.

Transfiguration is one of those church words whose meaning eludes us and most of us therefore find hard to relate to.  We personally know no one who has been transfigured and wouldn’t know what it looked like anyway.  There is a distinct lack of certainty about the word.  Similar to the word ‘God’ I suppose.

Delving into the Greek adds to the confusion.  Transfiguration is a translation of metamorphoreo, a change of form.  Jesus is high up on a mountain with three disciples and changes his form.  What does it mean to change one’s form?  It’s a strange, surreal notion.

The story simply says that after Jesus declared he was going to be killed [9:22], and told his followers that they needed to deny themselves and take up his way of suffering [9:23ff.]  - and you can imagine what a hit that saying was – Jesus took off.  With three of his closest mates he scaled this hill, and then got into serious praying.  Next thing you know Jesus is metamorphoreo-ing.

The text says, “The appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”  Seriously spooky.  But what allegedly happens next tops even that.  Moses – you know ‘he of Red Sea fame’ – only dead for a couple of thousand years – shows up.  So too old Elijah – likewise a great prophet who is long long long dead.

At this point your average inhabitant of a pew is having some difficulty.  It’s one thing to believe in Jesus, in what he said and did [even a miracle or two], but it’s quite another to believe that two characters, whose bodies are dead and gone, literally pop up on this mountain for a chat.

Those of you who have read some ancient writings, where the modern fixation on “Did it really happen?” is not in the picture, will probably have twigged that like in dreams we are dealing with symbols and the like.  The author of this episode, so the rationale goes, is trying to tell us some things about Jesus by alluding to well-known characters and associations. 

Indeed it is a blending of images from two main sources.

Firstly there’s the book of Daniel.  There’s this vision of a courtroom scene [10:5ff.].  There’s this man there in, what commentators call, ‘glorified’ clothing – and the Daniel text spells out what glorified means: linen garment, belt of gold, body like beryl [think crystalline], face like lightning, and limbs of burnished bronze [beat that Kardashians!].  This glorified man is ‘the Human One’ [in the old inaccurate days called ‘the Son of Man’], an advocate for truth and justice, who encourages Daniel to stay strong.

Luke introduces the Daniel thread in v.22 ‘the Son of Man must suffer… be rejected… be killed…’  This notion of Jesus suffering is counter-intuitive to many his disciples.  The theme of suffering envelopes the transfiguration story.  But why on earth would a messiah allow him/herself to suffer?  The Greco-Roman early 1st century mind understood suffering is a sign of weakness, and therefore the opposite of divine strength.  Not so for the author of the Book of Daniel who wrote some 150+ years before.

In Daniel the judgement and wisdom of the Human One is pitted against the judgement and wisdom of earthly courts and the tyrants whom they served [Daniel 7].  In Mark, who is the first gospel writer to introduce the lens of Daniel into understanding Jesus, the Human One is not the judge in the courtroom but the defendant who is tried, convicted and sentenced to death.  But Mark, like in Daniel, ‘looks again’ and sees that the defendant is actually the prosecutor and judge – by his suffering he is condemning the tyrants and those who serve them.  For the Jesus’ disciples [or us readers] to be vindicated in the Danielic courtroom is to be condemned in the Jewish/Roman one, and vice versa.  Thus, contrary to any common sense, to lose your life in the materialistic and self-serving court of public opinion is to save it.  This is the way of ‘take-up-your-cross-and-follow-me’.  It is not a death wish.  It is a way of counter-cultural living.

So the shining dazzling robes and metamorpheoing is not an allusion to end time glory, a foretaste of the climax of history – but to the Human One in the Book of Daniel, and the wisdom found in the way of non-violent resistance and suffering, a spiritual path of kenosis [letting go].

Then the second main intertextual allusion is Moses on Mt Sinai [Exodus 24:15ff.] and Elijah on Mt Horeb [1 Kings 19:11ff.].  The inner circle of male disciples is taken up the hill where they encounter a kind of salvation-history conference, with Moses and Elijah and the heavenly voice in attendance.  Why Moses and Elijah?

Each of these two great prophets represents those who, like the disciples at this moment, beheld Yahweh’s epiphany on a mountain at crucial moments of discouragement in their mission.  In the story of Elijah, he was being hunted by the authorities [1 Kings 19:11ff.].  He tries to flee but is met by Yahweh, who dispatches him back into the fray.  [As an aside if you want a cuddly God who will always rescue you from the hard stuff, then you should ditch both Christianity and Judaism].

And in the case of Moses, he is Yahweh’s envoy whose message has been once rejected by the people, and who must ascend the mountain a second time [Exodus 33:18ff.].  Both the stories therefore are instructive to the disciples at this point.  Moses and Elijah are not simply symbolic of the Law and the Prophets and are welcoming Jesus to the club!  There is a sense that the way of the cross stands in continuity with the best of the tradition – the Law and the Prophets – but there is an immediate sense of encouragement for those in the struggle by referring to the struggles of their spiritual forebears.

So, this whole scene of a dazzling threesome is simply a visionary vindication of Jesus’ way of non-violent resistance, kenosis, and the suffering this will bring, with support and encouragement being gained from the examples of Moses and Elijah – leaders who followed God rather than the dictates of the powerful or the populace.

Other commentators on this mystical conference of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus present it as a meeting point of heaven and earth [and assume that heaven is above]. In Jesus the two come together. The divine can be known and met in the human, and all that.  There are allusions too to Jesus’ baptism scene and the heavenly voice earlier in the Gospel; to the white-robed visitor in the empty tomb later in the Gospel, and white-robed martyrs [Daniel]; and to the Feast of Tabernacles [with hastily built huts recalling the 40 years of camping out in the wilderness].  These threads run in a number of directions and are at the mercy of preachers and poets and religious nutters.

Luke also presents us with the reactions of that inner circle of disciples - Peter, John and James – with Pete being the spokesperson. Peter’s building suggestion [and allusion to the Feast of Tabernacles] some find difficult to interpret.  Mark indicates Peter did not know what to say; and Luke suggests he did not know what he was saying.  Did he just want to do something, get out the blokey tool kit rather than sit round and pray?

Ched Myers interprets Peter’s desire to get out the hammer and nails and build some more buildings as wanting to construct a memorial.  Instead of following the way of the cross – with its uncertainty and transience, Peter proposes constructing a holy site where praise and adulation can be offered from now until forever and ever, amen.  And Jesus rebukes Peter and this desire for permanence and stability.

Although relationships, like spiritual journeys, need both stability and change, permanence and transience, the religious desire to stay put and build out of wood or stone a permanent edifice to our faith is very strong in every faith and denomination.  Edifices, church buildings, can be sites of rest, refreshment, and re-visioning.  Places for charging our spiritual batteries.  And edifices, church buildings, can be sites that trap us into mistaking ministry as maintaining past structures, mistaking the spiritual journey as being about up-keeping what is, rather than engaging with and going out to meet what is to come.

The trap of the transfiguration story is build a static theology about Jesus being a dazzling greater super saint than Moses and Elijah [isn’t he divine!]; rather than to see the transfiguration as a pointer to a dynamic theology which each of us live as we try to embody the upside-down kenotic values and way of Jesus. 

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