Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Preparing to preach on the
Transfiguration: Mark 9: 2-9

A modern icon of the Transfiguration by Alexander Ainetdinov ... in Orthodox icons of the Transfiguration, we have drama and a moment full of movement

Patrick Comerford

Sunday week [15 February 2015], is the Sunday before Lent. The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for that Sunday are: II Kings 2: 1-12; Psalm 50: 1-6; II Corinthians 4: 3-6; and Mark 9: 2-9.

There is an alternative set of readings: I Samuel 3: 1-10 [11-20]; Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-18; II Corinthians 4: 5-12; and Mark 2: 23 to 3: 6.

Mark 9: 2-9

2 Καὶ μετὰ ἡμέρας ἓξ παραλαμβάνει ὁ Ἰησοῦς τὸν Πέτρον καὶ τὸν Ἰάκωβον καὶ τὸν Ἰωάννην, καὶ ἀναφέρει αὐτοὺς εἰς ὄρος ὑψηλὸν κατ' ἰδίαν μόνους. καὶ μετεμορφώθη ἔμπροσθεν αὐτῶν, 3 καὶ τὰ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο στίλβοντα λευκὰ λίαν οἷα γναφεὺς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς οὐ δύναται οὕτως λευκᾶναι. 4 καὶ ὤφθη αὐτοῖς Ἠλίας σὺν Μωϋσεῖ, καὶ ἦσαν συλλαλοῦντες τῷ Ἰησοῦ. 5 καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ Πέτρος λέγει τῷ Ἰησοῦ, Ῥαββί, καλόν ἐστιν ἡμᾶς ὧδε εἶναι, καὶ ποιήσωμεν τρεῖς σκηνάς, σοὶ μίαν καὶ Μωϋσεῖ μίαν καὶ Ἠλίᾳ μίαν. 6 οὐ γὰρ ᾔδει τί ἀποκριθῇ, ἔκφοβοι γὰρ ἐγένοντο. 7 καὶ ἐγένετο νεφέλη ἐπισκιάζουσα αὐτοῖς, καὶ ἐγένετο φωνὴ ἐκ τῆς νεφέλης, Οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός, ἀκούετε αὐτοῦ. 8 καὶ ἐξάπινα περιβλεψάμενοι οὐκέτι οὐδένα εἶδον ἀλλὰ τὸν Ἰησοῦν μόνον μεθ' ἑαυτῶν.

9 Καὶ καταβαινόντων αὐτῶν ἐκ τοῦ ὄρους διεστείλατο αὐτοῖς ἵνα μηδενὶ ἃ εἶδον διηγήσωνται, εἰ μὴ ὅταν ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκ νεκρῶν ἀναστῇ.

Translation (NRSV):

2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

The Transfiguration by Aidan Hart ... in the Transfiguration, both the humanity and divinity of Christ are manifested to us

Making connections

How does this Gospel reading relate to the other lectionary readings for that Sunday?

The Old Testament reading (II Kings 2: 1-12) is the story of Elijah ascending in the chariot of fire in a whirlwind into heaven.

The Psalm talks about God being revealed in glory (Psalm 50: 2).

In the New Testament reading (II Corinthians 4: 5-12), Saint Paul talks about the minds of unbelievers being blinded, while our eyes should be focussed on the light of the Gospel, which is the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (verse 4), and of light shining out of darkness (verse 6).

So, there are visible threads that link the three readings and the Psalm, and these are going to be obvious to the attentive listener in Church on Sunday week.

The Transfiguration is described in the three Synoptic Gospels (see Matthew 17: 1-9; Mark 9: 2-8; Luke 9: 28-36). In addition, there may be allusions to the Transfiguration in John 1: 14 and in II Peter 1: 1-18, where Peter describes himself as an eyewitness “of his sovereign majesty.”

The Synoptic accounts of the Transfiguration are very similar in wording [Handout supplied].

So, what is different between Saint Mark’s account of the Transfiguration and the accounts in the other two Synoptic Gospels?

Saint Mark, like Saint Matthew, tells us these events take place “six days later,” although Luke says they take place “eight days later.”

All three accounts tell us that Christ’s robes become dazzling white, but Saint Mark alone tells us they are a white “such as no one on earth could bleach them” (verse 3).

Saint Mark also tells us the three disciples were “terrified.”

Telling the story

The Transfiguration also points to Christ’s great and glorious Second Coming and the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God

Should we describe the Transfiguration as a miracle? If we do, then it is the only Gospel miracle that happens to Christ himself. On the other hand, Saint Thomas Aquinas spoke of the Transfiguration as “the greatest miracle,” because it complemented Baptism and showed the perfection of life in Heaven.

None of the Gospel accounts identifies the “high mountain” by name. The earliest identification of the mountain as Mount Tabor was by Jerome in the late fourth century. But does it matter where the location is?

Consider the place of Mountains in the salvation story and in revelation:

● Moses meets God in the cloud and the burning bush on Mount Sinai, and there receives the tablets of the Covenant (Exodus 25 to 31);
● Elijah confronts the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (I Kings 18);
● Elijah climbs Mount Sinai and finds God not in the wind, the earthquake or the fire, but in the still small voice in the cleft of the Mountain (I Kings 19: 12);
● The Sermon, which is the “manifesto” of the new covenant, is the Sermon on the Mount;
● The Mount of Olives is a key location in the Passion narrative;
● Christ is crucified on Mount Calvary;
● John receives his Revelation in the cave at the top of the mountain on Patmos.

As for the cloud, all three Synoptic Gospels describe the cloud’s descent in terms of overshadowing (επισκιαζειν, episkiazein), which in the Greek is a pun on the word tent (σκηνάς, skenas). But this is also the same word used to describe the Holy Spirit overshadowing the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation: καὶ δύναμις ὑψίστου ἐπισκιάσει σοι (Luke 1: 35).

In the Old Testament, the pillar of cloud leads the people through the wilderness by day, just as the pillar of fire leads them by night. Moses entered the cloud on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24: 18), the Shekinah cloud is the localised manifestation of the presence of God (Exodus 19: 9; 33: 9; 34: 5; 40: 34; II Maccabees 2: 8).

The cloud takes Christ up into heaven at the Ascension (Acts 1: 9-10).

Saint Paul talks about the living and the dead being caught up in the cloud to meet the Lord (I Thessalonians 4: 17).

The principle characters:

The Transfiguration ... a fresco in an Orthodox church in the US

Christ is the focus of the Transfiguration, but who are the other principle characters in this story?

1, The Trinity: In Orthodox theology, the Transfiguration is not only a feast in honour of Christ, but a feast of the Holy Trinity, for all three Persons of the Trinity are present at that moment:

● God the Father speaks from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17: 5).
● God the Son is transfigured.
● God the Holy Spirit is present in the form of a cloud.

In this sense, the Transfiguration is also considered the “Small Epiphany” – the “Great Epiphany” being the Baptism of Christ, when the Holy Trinity appears in a similar pattern).

2, Moses and Elijah: At the Transfiguration, Christ appears with Moses and Elijah, the two pre-eminent figures of Judaism, standing alongside him. Saint John Chrysostom explains their presence in three ways:

● They represent the Law and the Prophets – Moses receives the Law from God, and Elijah is a great prophet.
● They both experience visions of God – Moses on Mount Sinai and Elijah on Mount Carmel.
● They represent the living and the dead – Elijah, the living, because he is taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire (see our Old Testament reading for this day), and Moses, the dead, because he does experience death.

Moses and Elijah show that the Law and the Prophets point to the coming of Christ, and their recognition of and conversation with Christ symbolise how he fulfils “the law and the prophets” (Matthew 5: 17-19). Moses and Elijah also stand for the living and dead, for Moses dies and his burial place is known, while Elijah is taken alive into heaven in order to appear again to announce the time of God’s salvation.

It was commonly believed that Elijah would reappear before the coming of the Messiah (see Malachi 4), and the three interpret Christ’s response as a reference to Saint John the Baptist (Matthew 17: 13).

3, The Disciples: Saint Peter, Saint James and Saint John are with Christ on the mountain top. But, we may ask, why these three disciples?

Do you remember how this might relate to Moses and Elijah? Moses ascends the mountain with three trusted companions, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, to confirm the covenant (Exodus 24: 1), and God’s glory covers the mountain in a cloud for six days (Exodus 25 to 31).

In some ways, Saint Peter, Saint James and Saint John serve as an inner circle or a “kitchen cabinet” in the Gospels. Perhaps this intimacy is reflected in the fact that they are the only disciples who are given nickname by Christ: Simon becomes the Rock, and James and John are the sons of thunder (Luke 5: 10).

They are at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17: 1, Mark 9: 2; Luke 9: 28), but they are also at the raising of the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5: 35-43; Luke 6: 51), they are at the top of the Mount of Olives when Christ is about to enter Jerusalem (Mark 13: 3), they help to prepare for the Passover (Luke 22: 8), and they are in Gethsemane (Matthew 26: 37).

Jerome speaks of Saint Peter as the rock on which the Church is built, Saint James as the first of the apostles to die a martyr’s death, Saint John as the beloved disciple.

They are a trusted group who also serve to represent us at each moment in the story of salvation.

The Transfiguration ... a Romanian copy of an icon in Stavronikita Monastery in Mount Athos

The meaning of the Transfiguration:

The Transfiguration of Christ in itself is the fulfilment of all of the Theophanies and manifestations of God, a fulfilment made perfect and complete in the person of Christ. We could say the Transfiguration is the culmination of Christ’s public life, just as his Baptism is its starting point, and his Ascension its end. As Archbishop Michael Ramsey writes in his book, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ: “The Transfiguration stands as a gateway to the saving events of the Gospel.”

The Transfiguration reveals Christ’s identity as the Son of God. In the Gospel, after the voice speaks, Elijah and Moses have disappeared, and Christ and the three head down the mountain. The three ask themselves what he means by “risen from the dead” (Mark 9: 9-10). When they ask Christ about Elijah, he responds: “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come …” (Mark 9: 12-13). He tells them to keep these things a secret until the Son of Man has risen from the dead. Yet, in keeping with the Messianic secret, he tells the three not to tell others what they have seen until he has risen on the third day after his death.

Celebrating the Transfiguration:

Saint Peter’s reference to the booths could imply that the Transfiguration took place during the time of the Feast of Tabernacles, when Biblical Jews were camping out in the fields for the grape harvest. This Feast also recalled the wanderings in the wilderness recorded in the Book Exodus.

In early Church tradition, the Transfiguration is connected with the approaching death and resurrection of Christ, and so was said to have taken place 40 days before the Crucifixion.

At first, the feast of the Transfiguration belonged to the pre-Easter season of the Church and was celebrated on one of the Sundays of Lent. A sermon on the Transfiguration was preached in Lent by Saint John Chrysostom while he was a priest in Antioch in 390.

The Feast of the Transfiguration was celebrated on Mount Sinai from the mid-fifth century, and in Constantinople from the late seventh century. Saint Gregory Palamas, the great teacher of the Transfiguration, is commemorated during Lent.

From 1474 until at least 1969, it was observed in the Roman Catholic Church on the Second Sunday in Lent. In some modern calendars, including Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican calendars, the Transfiguration is now commemorated on the Sunday immediately before Ash Wednesday, although traditionally, the Feast of the Transfiguration is observed in the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox calendars on 6 August. It may have been moved there because 6 August is 40 days before 14 September, the Feast of the Holy Cross, so keeping the tradition that the Transfiguration took place 40 days before the Crucifixion.

Among Anglicans, the Feast of the Transfiguration disappeared from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. When it reappeared in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, it returned to the calendar but without any other provisions.

In The Book of Common Prayer (2004), the Church of Ireland has Collects and Post-Communion prayers for the Feast of the Transfiguration on 6 August, along with this alternative provision to mark the Transfiguration on the Sunday before Lent.

In the Orthodox Church, the Feast of the Transfiguration is a major feast, and is counted among the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church. This is also the second of the “Three Feasts of the Saviour in August.” These are:

● The Procession of the Cross (1 August).
● The Transfiguration (6 August).
● The “Icon of Christ Not Made by Hands” (16 August).

But the Transfiguration also has associations with ordinations: from the time of Pope Leo the Great (died 460), the Transfiguration was the Gospel reading set for Ember Saturday, the day before ordinations.

Event and process

The Transfiguration is both an event and a process. The original Greek word for Transfiguration in the Gospel accounts is μεταμόρφωσις (metamorphosis), which gives us access to a deeper and more theological meaning, a deeper truth, than the word derived from the Latin transfiguratio, which can be translated by “to be changed into another from.” But the Greek μεταμόρφωσις means “to progress from one state of being to another.” Consider the metamorphosis of the chrysalis into the butterfly.

Saint Paul also uses the word μεταμόρφωσις when he describes how the Christian is to be transfigured, transformed, into the image of Christ (II Corinthians 3: 18).

The metamorphosis invites us into the event of becoming what we have been created to be. This is what Orthodox writers call deification. Transfiguration is a profound change, by God, in Christ, through the Spirit. And so, the Transfiguration reveals to us our ultimate destiny as Christians, the ultimate destiny of all people and all creation to be transformed and glorified by the majestic splendour of God himself.

The Transfiguration points to Christ’s great and glorious Second Coming and the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God, when all of creation will be transfigured and filled with light. The vision of Christ in his glory and the experience of the divine light are at the very heart of both Orthodox mysticism and Orthodox eschatology. The “uncreated light” is a hallmark theme in Orthodox spirituality, especially in the writings of Saint Gregory Palamas and the school of the thought that is hesychasm, which draws constantly on the themes of the Transfiguration.

Saint Gregory Palamas distinguishes between the essence of God, which is beyond human apprehension, and the energies of God, which are the ways in which we can experience and know God. According to him, the light of the Transfiguration “is not something that comes to be and then vanishes.” Rather, Christ’s disciples experienced a transformation of their senses so that “they beheld the Ineffable Light where and to the extent that the Spirit granted it to them.”

This was, therefore, not only a prefiguration of the eternal blessedness to which all Christians look forward, but also of the Kingdom of God already revealed, realised and come.

In Orthodox theology, since Patristic times, the three booths or tents that the three disciples want to erect represent three stages of salvation:

● Virtue, which is the active life of ascetic struggle, and which is represented by Elijah.
● Spiritual knowledge, which requires right discernment in natural contemplation or contemplation of the natural order, which was disclosed by Moses.
● Theology, which means contemplation of God, which requires the consummate perfection of wisdom, and which was revealed by Christ.

Concluding images:

In a lecture in Cambridge some years ago [2011], Metropolitan Kallistos [Ware], the pre-eminent Orthodox theologian in England, spoke of the Transfiguration as a disclosure not only of what God is but of what we are. The New Adam shows us human nature as it was before the fall. The Transfiguration looks back to the beginning, but also looks forward to the end, to the final glory of Christ’s second coming, because through the incarnation Christ raised human nature to a new level, opening new possibilities.

The incarnation is a new beginning for the human race, and in the Transfiguration we see not only our human nature at the beginning, but as it can be in and through Christ at the end, he told the Summer School organised that year by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Sidney Sussex College.

Secular Christianity rests satisfied with our human nature as it is now. But he wants us to look to our potentialities, as seen in the Transfiguration of Christ. The light of the Transfiguration embraces all created things, nothing is irredeemably secular, all created things can be bathed in the light of the Transfiguration.

He also referred to Revelation 21: 5, where Christ tells the Seer of Patmos: “Behold, I make all things new” – not: “Behold, I make all new things.” The Transfiguration is a pre-figuration of the transfiguration of the cosmos, he said.

But with the Transfiguration comes the invitation to bear the cross with Christ. Peter, James and John were with Christ on Mount Tabor and with him in Gethsemane. We must understand the Passion of Christ and the Transfiguration in the light of each other, not as two separate mysteries, but aspects of the one single mystery. Mount Tabor and Mount Calvary go together; and glory and suffering go together.

If we are to undertake the task of Transfiguration, we cannot leave our cross behind. If we are to bring the secular, fallen world into the glory of Christ, that has to be through self-emptying κένωσις (kenosis), cross-bearing and suffering. There is no answer to secularism that does not take account of the Cross, as well taking account of the Transfiguration and the Resurrection.

The Transfiguration provides a guideline for confronting the secular world, he said. And he retold a story from Leo Tolstoy, Three Questions. The central figure is set a task of answering three questions:

What is the most important moment? The most important moment is now, the past is gone, and the future does not exist yet.

Who is the most important person? This person who is before you in this very instant.

What is the most important task? This task which you are engaged in here and now.

The light which shone from Christ on the mountaintop is not a physical and created light, but an eternal and uncreated light, a divine light, the light of the Godhead, the light of the Holy Trinity.

The experience on Mount Tabor confirms Saint Peter’s confession of faith which reveals Christ as the Son of the Living God. Yet Christ remains fully human as ever he was, as fully human as you or I, and his humanity is not abolished. But the Godhead shines through his body and from it.

In Christ dwells all the fullness of the Godhead. But at other points in his life, the glory is hidden beneath the veil of his flesh. What we see in Christ on Mount Tabor is human nature, our human nature, taken up into God and filled with the light of God. “So this should be our attitude to the secular world,” Metropolitan Kallistos said.

Or, as the Revd Dr Kenneth Leech once said: “Transfiguration can and does occur ‘just around the corner,’ occurs in the midst of perplexity, imperfection, and disastrous misunderstanding.”

Some questions for discussion

Is this a more appropriate time for celebrating the Transfiguration?

Can you identify with Saint Peter’s hasty response?

Or do you sometimes feel terrified in the presence of God, and know not what to do?

Saint Matthew alone has Christ telling the three disciples: ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ (Matthew 17: 7). What are people’s fears today? What role have we in calming those fears and in reassuring people of the presence of Christ?

Where do you think people can be brought to see Christ today? In the Church? In the poor? In themselves?

Look at verse 9. Is there an appropriate time for mission an inappropriate time?

Collect

Almighty Father,
whose Son was revealed in majesty
before he suffered death upon the cross:
Give us grace to perceive his glory,
that we may be strengthened to suffer with him
and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Holy God
we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ.
May we who are partakers at his table
reflect his life in word and deed,
that all the world may know
his power to change and save.
This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on 4 February 2015.