The Transfiguration of our Lord

Benjamin Lee

August 6, AD 2006

Throughout this Trinity Season, we have been exercising ourselves, striving, by divine grace, in the work of our conversion: which involves the turning of our vision and of our love heavenwards, to that beauteous splendour which illumines all of our darkness; and which entails the purifying of our minds and hearts from whatever does not reflect the glory of God, from any tarnish of the divine image in which we have been created.  With our eyes thus uplifted, while now we see only as in a glass, darkly, our hope is to be transformed into this glorious likeness, that we may see our Saviour face to face, and behold him as he is.   

On this Feast of the Transfiguration, we celebrate the manifestation of divine glory in the transfigured body of Christ our Lord, which is nothing less than the revelation in mystery of his divine sonship: “and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light . . . and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 17:2, 5).  Peter, James and John were, on that day on mount Tabor, witnesses of the light and glory of Christ.  Now it is for us to consider in what sense this manifestation of light a mystery.  And how does this mystery pertain to us, to our vocation of holy living and holy dying?

When Jesus’ glory shone forth and was beheld by the three, St Matthew records that “there appeared unto them Moses and Elijah talking with him” (Matt. 17:3).  By which he means: the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospel are here sharing a conversation.  For the Law was received by Moses; singularly among the Prophets, Elijah ascended into heaven in a fiery chariot; and of course the transfigured Christ, that “true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (John 1:5, 9) is himself the Gospel.  But the voice from heaven makes emphatically clear that these three are decisively not equal dialogue partners.  Scripture indeed reveals God’s glory and salvation to the human race, yet the unity of God’s Word written consists in one figure; all and each of its parts witness to one focal point which undergirds the whole, which is manifest in the voice from heaven: “Hear ye him” (Matt. 17:5).   That is to say: “All scripture is perceived in a new light by the soul which is open to the gospel and adheres to Christ.  All scripture is transfigured by Christ” (de Lubac, “Spiritual Understanding”). 

Yet we must probe deeper: for there is no illumination, no spiritual understanding even, which does not come from Christ.  Contrary to the doctrine of our age, moral law—if we may be permitted to recognise moral law—is not a matter of ‘what I feel is true;’ truth is not something which ‘might be true for you but isn’t true for me;’ it is not a private affair which admits of contradiction and change and variability, according different circumstances, times and places.  It is not a matter of private interpretation.  Rather, truth is one.  We may perhaps find it, in part, outside of our canon of Sacred Scripture, just as in the Middle Ages the coming of Christ was found in the Latin poetry of the pagan, Virgil; we may find it among secular learning, just as in the fourth century St Augustine’s prayers and affections were changed by reading the philosophy of the pagan, Cicero.  But this is because all knowledge is divine illumination; and all truth, ultimately, belongs to Christ, the divine logos.  The brightness and glory of Christ which shines forth from his transfigured face scatters the darkness of the world, and floods with its bright beams the dimness of our mortal understanding.

But the mystery of the transfiguration goes still deeper than this.  For in the light of the transfigured Christ is comprehended the mystery of our very judgment, and conversion: for his light searches the dark and secret shadows of our hearts.  The disciples, having seen the vision of Christ’s glory, having heard the voice of God from out of the cloud, “fell on their face, and were sore afraid” (Matt. 17:6).  It is only in the vision of God that we come to see ourselves as we truly are.  In the dazzling light of Christ’s glory, we come to recognize, first of all, our own darkness of soul, weakness, iniquity and wretchedness, how far indeed we are from our source of being and life, and our inability to sustain and enjoy the vision of God by our own effort.  As St Augustine puts it, “When I first came to know you, you raised me up to make me see that what I saw is Being, and that I who saw am not yet Being.  And you gave a shock to the weakness of my sight by the strong radiance of your rays, . . . And I found myself far from you” (Confessions, VII.x.16).  True self-knowledge, and thus true knowledge of God, is only attained when we come to know ourselves as we are known, and judged, by God.  In the frailty of our nature, we who are “not worthy to gather up the crumbs under thy table,” should rightly come to our knees in humility of spirit, full of fear and wonder and ecstasy before the splendour of God’s majesty.  For we cannot bear to gaze on such a great glory.  As the Lord declared to the Israelites, “Man shall not see me and live” (Ex. 33:20). 

Yet the bright beams of Christ are also our heavenly comfort: if we are to be lifted up to true being and life, we must come to know and embrace God anew in the divinity become weak who alone can raise and lift us up to himself.  “And Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid.  And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only” (Matt. 17:7, 8).

Christ reveals to us our real human condition, the truth about ourselves, and what humanity truly is: we through our fall disfigured our nature, and caused its original resplendence to be forgotten, lost.  Yet God in his mercy condescended to take our nature upon himself: Jesus Christ, “God, of God; Light, of Light; Very God, of very God” (BCP, 71), humbled himself by taking on the flesh of our humanity, that we might ascend to the divine.  His transfigured glory shows us what we once were and what we shall be again if we come to him, and are transformed into his likeness from glory to glory.  To contemplate the vision of the transfiguration is a foretaste of heaven on earth, and by fixing our gaze upon Christ’s glorified body we are strengthened inwardly by his grace to follow him to Jerusalem, in self-denial, suffering, death, and the resurrection to life everlasting.

Let us, then, come to Jesus, unto his salvific light, to be enlightened, to be transfigured: that our darkness may be overwhelmed by his holy and glorious rays; that we may be abased in the searing light of his judgement, and by his mercy lifted unto the likeness of his glory; so that “when the Son of Man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, [and] . . . shall . . .  sit upon the throne of his glory” (Matt. 25:31) then we may be numbered among his saints, welcomed into the fullness of his unending joy and light perpetual, adorned with his celestial glory.  Amen.     




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