The Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Review by Jesse Zink
“Mankind must be led to the Christian faith not as a panacea of progress,” wrote Michael Ramsey in The Glory of God, “nor as an otherworldly solution unrelated to history, but as a Gospel of Transfiguration. Such a Gospel both transcends the world and speaks to the immediate here-and-now.”
|The Transfiguration of Christ
By John Gatta. Wipf & Stock.
Pp. 144. $19
This is the point of departure for The Transfiguration of Christ and Creation. Seeking to understand the implications of such a “Gospel of Transfiguration,” John Gatta traces the ways in which the event has been interpreted, depicted, and understood through 2,000 years of Christian history. He ranges widely, from a mosaic at St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai to music of Olivier Messiaen, poems of T.S. Eliot and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to writers ranging from patristic theologians to more recent figures like J.R.R. Tolkien, Annie Dillard, and Wendell Berry. Gatta, dean of college and professor of English at the University of the South, is erudite and assured in his treatment of these sources. Frequently returning to Teilhard, the Jesuit priest-scientist whose work was restricted by the church during his lifetime, he finds in him a “mystically integrative vision of spirituality and science [that] is sorely needed by a post-industrial society that yearns to recover contact with the living soul” (p. 36).
As the diversity of these sources indicates, it is the theme of Transfiguration, rather than the biblical accounts directly, that is at the heart of the book. Gatta sees Transfiguration’s importance as it teaches us something new about Jesus and his glory, involves human beings in the process of transfiguration, and encourages us to “consider how a cosmic Christ also illuminates the nonhuman, material order of being” (p. xx), that is, all of creation.
This last area is the richest vein for Gatta. Noting that August 6 is both the traditional commemoration of the Transfiguration as well as the date of its “heartrending parody” in the bombing of Hiroshima, he argues that the Transfiguration provides the surest footing for the Church’s environmental activism. While he is concerned about environmental degradation, he fears the Church’s current activity on this issue is in danger of reducing it to “little more than a technically incompetent adjunct of the Sierra Club” (p. 73). By rooting its environmental theology in the Transfiguration, the Church could move beyond a well-meaning but limited focus on “stewardship” and respond to looming environmental catastrophe in “more integrally liturgical, contemplative, and doxological terms, befitting her authentic charism as the Church” (p. 73). August 6, he argues persuasively, should be seen as a Christian counterpart to Earth Day.
The Transfiguration cannot be the preserve of mystics alone, but rather has profound consequences for life once we descend from the mountain. Gatta considers Desmond Tutu’s antiapartheid activism and self-described “spirituality of transformation.” It was Tutu’s conviction — formed in prayer and contemplation — that with God no situation is “untransfigurable” that provided the grounding for his prophetic work. Our apprehension of the glory of God leads us into action in God’s world.
Gatta, it is clear, is transfixed by the Transfiguration. A concluding chapter includes sample materials for devotional reflections linked to the theme.
But if Transfiguration is as all-encompassing a concept as Gatta claims, one is left wondering just what is not included. Where do its implications end? But that must be the point: by pointing repeatedly to the ways in which Transfiguration has been a theme of Christian art, theology, and spirituality throughout the history of the Church, Gatta reminds us of the transformation and conversion that is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Christ. The Christian faith cannot be reduced merely to mental assent or a prescription for individual rules and particular courses of action. Rather, it is a transforming process that is at once mystical and profound in the way it brings us face to face with the beauty, majesty, and glory of God in Christ.
The Rev. Jesse Zink, a priest in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, is a doctoral student in African Christianity at Cambridge University.