Enchantment or Faith?
A Reflection on Two Transfigurations
David J. Goa
Exodus 34:29 -35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-18; Luke 9:28-43
Two stories of enchantment. The first one stands at the foundation of the Covenant. The second just before the journey to Jerusalem, on the threshold of Christ's Crucifixion, at the foundation of the Covenant, made new for the whole of the human family.
Both are stories of seeing and veiling, of presence and glorification. They are also revelations of abandonment, the abandonment of faith. Stories unveiling our appetite for false enchantment.
The transfiguration of Christ is one of the central events in the gospels. It comes at a poignant moment and we remember this moment when we read the texts in preparation for Great Lent. They encourage us to enter the school of repentance, to turning around and brings our attention into focus as we move toward the Passion of our Lord.
Immediately after the Jesus was recognized by his apostles as "the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the Living God" he told them that "he must go up to Jerusalem and suffer many things . . . and be killed and on the third day be raised." (Matthew 16) The announcement of Christ's approaching passion and death was met with indignation by the disciples. And then, after rebuking them, he took Peter, James and John "up to a high mountain," by tradition Mount Tabor, and was "transfigured before them."
". . . and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as snow and behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah." He was still speaking when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased: listen to him."
The Jewish Festival of Booths that began during the forty years of desert preparation for entering the promised land and continues in faithful Jewish homes to this day, was a feast of the dwelling of God with human beings. The transfiguration of Christ reveals how this dwelling takes place in and through the Messiah, the Son of God in human flesh. It unveils for us the mystery that, like Christ, we to are offered the transfigured life as sons and daughters of the Divine. There is little doubt that Christ's transfiguration took place at the time of the Festival of Booths, and that the celebration of the event in the Christian Church became the New Testament renewal (fulfillment) of the Hebrew Bible feast in a way similar to the feasts of Passover and Pentecost.
In the Transfiguration, the apostles see the glory of the Kingdom of God present in majesty in the person of Christ. They see that in him, indeed, "all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell," that "in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily" (Colossians 1:19, 2:9) As with all the revelations of Christ it is also a revelation of the human nature and that God is pleased to dwell in us. The disciples see this before the crucifixion so that in the resurrection they might know who it is who has suffered for them, and what it is that this one, who is God, has prepared for those who love him. The transfigured life is a call to us, a call to the recovery of the fullness of our God given nature.
Along with the fundamental meaning which the event of the Transfiguration has in the context of the life and mission of Christ, and in addition to the theme of the glory of God which is revealed in all of its divine splendor in the face of the Saviour, the presence of Moses and Elijah is also of great significance for the understanding of this text and the celebration of this feast. Moses and Elijah, according to the earliest hymns of worship in the Church, are not only the greatest figures of the Hebrew Bible who now come to worship the Incarnation of God in glory, they are not merely two of the holy men to whom God was revealed in the many theophanies of the Covenant to Israel. These two figures actually stand for the Hebrew Bible itself: Moses for the Law and Elijah for the Prophets. And, Christ is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 5:17)
Moses and Elijah also stand for the living and the dead, for Moses died and his burial place is unknown, while Elijah was taken alive into heaven in order to appear again to announce the time of God's salvation in Christ the Messiah, God's salvation (healing), in every human person, women, man and child when they glimpse how God sees them. "This is my beloved son, my beloved daughter" is addressed to us on Mount Tabor.
In appearing with Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah show that the Messiah-Saviour is here, and that he is the Son of God and the Son of Woman, the whole of the human nature, to whom the Creator of all bears witness, of the Covenant and the Covenant recovered in the Gospel for the whole of the human family, of the living and the dead. The Transfiguration of Christ is the fulfillment of the manifestations of God, a fulfillment made perfect and complete in the person of Christ. The Transfiguration of Christ reveals to us our ultimate destiny as Christians, the ultimate destiny of all human beings and all creation - to be transformed and glorified through relationship with the majestic splendor of the Divine.
There is little doubt that the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ belonged first to the pre-Easter season of the Church. Just as we remember it in the readings of the Church on the threshold of Lent so did our spiritual ancestors in the early church. For the liturgical traditions in the Christian family the feast of Transfiguration is presently celebrated on the sixth of August. In Orthodox Churches it is accented with the blessing of grapes, as well as other fruits and vegetables, all as a beautiful sign of the transfiguration of all things in Christ. It signifies the ultimate flowering and fruitfulness of all creation in the paradise of God's unending Kingdom of Life where all is glimpsed through the glory of the Lord.
But the scriptures are in no sense utopian. They reveal to us the Presence of God in life. They reveal to us how quickly we take flight from the Divine Presence. They call us to open our eyes to what is, to glimpse again the image of God manifest before us. Yet in both these texts, both these stories, we see how easy it is to be momentarily caught up in the wonder of the Presence unveiled before us. Those who saw Moses transfigured by his encounter with the Divine Presence, his glimpse of the Living God, his opening to God's spousal covenant of love, follow his instructions to build a dwelling place, a Tabernacle in the wilderness of their lives. They are the same ones who built the golden calf. The Dwelling of the Presence, the dwelling of the golden calf. Seeing and veiling. Encounter and abandonment.
And, it is no different for the disciples of the renewed covenant. Peter wants immediately to build a dwelling place for Christ, for Moses and Elijah, one for each of them. These disciples had walked the valley of the Galilee with their master. Now they glimpse his transfiguration. Shortly they will descend the mountain, walk to Jerusalem, and be welcomed with palm branches. And, a few days hence they will take flight.
It is a hard gospel because it is so easy to glimpse for a moment the image of God in each of those that cross our daily path. It is a hard gospel because it is so easy to abandon the dwelling place of Presence. Around the corner is our golden calf and we are quick to give explanations why the Presence is impossible just now.
The gospel is anything but spiritual romanticism. Sooner or later we must walk alone in faith. Sooner or later our enchantments, even our enchantments of the sacred, wither.
"Christ did not enchant men; He demanded that they believe in Him. Except on one occasion, the Transfiguration. For a brief while, Peter, James, and John were permitted to see Him in His glory. For that brief while they had no need of faith. The vision vanished, and the memory of it did not prevent them from all forsaking Him when He was arrested, or Peter from denying that he had ever known Him." (W.H. Auden, A Certain World. London: Faber and Faber, 1970:150)
We thank you for your Presence among us and for our daily glimpses of your Presence. Forgive us our quick abandonment. Save us from false enchantment. Presence is too much for us. Help us to see its veiling and not take flight from it or replace it's magnificent flesh with that, which is only golden. Restore our faith, our disposition to see and to open to your little places of Presence, so we may come to walk with ease in the light of your countenance. Amen.