By Matthew S.C. Olver
Today is a peculiar day. There are times when spiritual events and historical realities collide in the most curious of ways. Today is the anniversary of when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in an attempt to end the Second World War.
Today is also when faithful Christians throughout the Church celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. What we celebrate is the presence of the resurrected and ascended Christ in the midst of his incarnate life. We stand with the three disciples and witness the infusion of Christ’s divine nature with his human body so that he appears anything but merely a man.
This notion of a transfiguration or radical transformation of someone’s outer appearance is no stranger to the world of fiction and storytelling. In Franz Kafka’s story “The Metamorphosis,” Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, awakes one morning to discover that he has been transformed into a monstrous beatle. Harry Potter, in the children’s book series that bears his name, must take a class in his sixth and seventh years called “Transfiguration” in which he and his classmates must learn to change the form and appearance of an object. They do this through a combination of intense concentration, the “precise waving of a wand and speaking the appropriate incantation.”
But both of these instances differ profoundly from what happens with Jesus on the holy mountain. For Kafka’s Gregor, his transmutation does not stop with his changed appearance. The bizarre and radical substitution of the body of an insect for his human frame slowly begins to sink into Gregor’s very being: his sense are different, his abilities are changed, his voice is altered. In short, his outward appearance as a beatle slowly infects his inward person. But in the account from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ change is not the impetus for an inner transformation, but rather a revelation of his true identity.
In the case of the academic course “Transfiguration” at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books, the students remain themselves when transmuting their appearance into some other object, such as an animal or a piece of furniture. The animal or piece of furniture has no relationship to who they really are, but speaks merely of their need or imagination.
So what exactly is the transfiguration of Jesus really about? Luke begins by telling us that this event took place “eight days after Jesus had foretold his death and resurrection.” This mention of the “eighth day” was of great importance to early interpreters, for it was a direct allusion to the resurrection. The world was created in seven days, and it was God’s decision to rest on the seventh day that was the source of the Jewish Sabbath. The resurrection of Jesus occurred on the day after the Sabbath, what we would instinctually call the first day of the week. But the Church instinctively called this resurrection Sunday the Eighth Day, sometimes the eighth day of creation. And so this event whereby heaven and earth grasp each other occurs eight days after Jesus speaks openly of his impending death and resurrection.
The scene also directly evokes images and geography of the story of Israel. Theophonies occurred on the mountaintop many a time, the chief example being found in our lesson from Exodus 34. Moses goes up Mount Sinai to receive the Decalogue, mysteriously written by the finger of God on stone tablets that would later reside in the Ark of the Covenant. The nearness of God’s presence was so profound that it affected Moses’ very being, such that his face shone with divine, shekinah, glory.
Clearly this was a central piece of the story of Jesus, for both Matthew and Mark tells of it as well. In Matthew’s account, he includes the not-so-surprising detail that Jesus’ face shown like the sun (17:2). The presence of both Moses and Elijah further connect this narrative to the larger story of Israel. Moses, the seminal figure of the first five books of the Old Testament known as “the Law” to faithful Jews, stands on one side, while Elijah, symbolizing the other portion of Jewish Torah, “the Prophets,” stands on his other side. Jesus, proclaimed in the Law and the Prophets as though behind the veil that Moses was forced to wear, now appears in his frightening fullness, unveiled and with his Jewish forefathers. Both had “foreshadowed the mystery of Christ” in their own ways; now they reveal that the law and prophets stand as sentries with our Lord.
We would be profoundly amiss if we did not take note of the topic of conversation between our Lord and his forerunners. They spoke, Luke tells us, “of his departure,” of what “he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” The Greek here is “exodus,” departure. He was not merely about to leave, but to depart on a mission of Old Testament proportions. The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille’s over-the-top film with a young Charlton Heston, did justice to at least one aspect of the exodus from Egypt: its unbelievably massive scale.
But our Lord’s exodus was even grander still. God in Christ was to undergo humiliation, suffering, and even death. He was to descend even to the depths of Hell. The grandiosity of his exodus is not in the act, but in its effect. The liberation won was not just for a particular group of people at a precise moment in history. His actions opened a way for a new kind of living, a kind in which any person is offered the possibility of taking this same journey, into the baptismal waters of Christ death, through death itself, and into the Eucharistic glory of his resurrection. In short, the liberation of all of creation.
They speak of what he was to accomplish in Jerusalem, where he again would be found on a mountain. In not too short a time, his glory would again be revealed, but this time on an ugly mountain as he hangs on a tree. When we see our Lord, broken and hanging on the cross, we see the ever-present and ever-true Transfiguration. We see God, suffering with the weight of the world. We see God hidden in the flesh of a human being who is bleeding and will die. The Transfiguration was a gift to the disciples, a revelation of “how also his humanity was to be lifted up by heavenly light through his resurrection.”
Glory and suffering are intertwined, and if it was true for our Lord, it certainly will be true for us. In our collect, we ask to be delivered from the disquietude of the world, but our need goes much deeper than that.
There is no question that many around the world said that on Aug 6, 1945, when the first atomic bomb was used in war, everything had changed. There is no question that the character of warfare inexorably altered. In this generation, there has been no end to the proclamation that what happened on September 11, 2001, changed everything. But the truth is that it was on Resurrection Day, on the eighth day of creation, that everything changed. For a light had dawned on everyone who had been bound in the darkness of sin. Heaven and earth had been joined. Amen.
The Rev. Matthew S.C. Olver is assistant professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and the director of St. Mary’s Chapel.