“If you trust me, as a friendly counselor, you will bid farewell to the lusts of the flesh, you will purge yourself as far as possible from all friendship and commerce with this material world below; you will put on the blessed and holy light which shines from above, and walk with the Mother of God.” — Andrew of Crete: Homily I on the Dormition of Mary.
From the earliest days of the church’s Marian reflection, thoughts and statements about Mary have been exactly that, reflections, ideas bounced from the proverbial mirror of thinking about her offspring, Jesus Christ. The church’s commemoration of Mary on August 15 is variously styled as her Dormition, literally “going to sleep,” by the Orthodox; her Assumption by Roman Catholics; and, non-descriptively, as the feast of Saint Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the 1979 BCP. By whatever name, there is plenty of room for exploring the coincidence that it would come as close as it does to the Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6). The placement of each of these two great feasts in the calendar of the church is independent from the other from the standpoint of liturgical history, but from the standpoint of theology, devotion, and even biblical exegesis, these celebrations draw together several related themes.
Several years back on this blog, Caleb Congrove wrote a beautiful piece on the richness of the feasts in the month of August, specifically the Transfiguration and the Dormition/Assumption of Mary, coupled with a brilliant evocation of Faulkner’s Light in August, which I have never read, and the Counting Crows song August and Everything After, which I have always enjoyed. Rather than recapping his fine essay, I simply commend it to you here, and move forward with my own thoughts related to the biblical and theological links between these two solemn commemorations.
As with most other things in the Christian life, the story here begins with baptism. In the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, both Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan and his Transfiguration are accompanied by a voice from heaven announcing Jesus as God’s “beloved Son.” Mark especially interweaves biblical allusions such that the divine voice evokes a vocal tapestry from the Scriptures that constitutes the warp and woof of this utterance’s significance. There is Psalm 2:7, where the Lord says to the Davidic king, “You are my son, this day I have begotten you,” along with God’s covenant promise to David and his seed in 2 Sam 7:14 “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.” Jesus is that Son. There is Gen 22, where Abraham hears the puzzling and troubling call to sacrifice Isaac, a call in which the voice of the Lord repeatedly stresses Isaac’s status as beloved: “Take your son, your beloved son, Isaac, whom you love to the land of Moriah and offer him there…” Jesus again here is that beloved one. He is declared God’s son, like David, but more. He is declared God’s beloved, like Isaac, but greater. He is to rule and redeem. He is anointed, and marked as God’s beloved who will be offered on the mountain.
So too on the mountain of Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John see Moses and Elijah, behold Jesus revealed in glorious radiance, and hear the divine voice again, “This is my Son, the beloved.” This event comes in the midst of Jesus’s passion predictions. It is an unveiling of the divine nature of the one who speaks to them of his suffering and death on their behalf. They must know who it is who will “give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45; Matt 20:28). But the Baptism and Transfiguration also tell us something about us.
From the earliest interpretation of Jesus’s baptism, Christians have seen a connection between the divine utterance and our status as baptized people. Ignatius of Antioch says as much when he says that Jesus “was born and baptized that by his Passion he might cleanse the water” (Epistle to the Ephesians 18:2). In other words, Jesus’s baptism makes our baptism effective. This gets to the logic present in Matthew’s account of the baptism where John would prevent Jesus from baptism, were it not for Jesus’s insistence that it happen “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:15).
This too is the logic of Paul when he speaks about our adoption into God’s family in Rom 8:15–17. In our baptism we “received a spirit of adoption in which we cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’ This same Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs: heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ.” Similarly in Luke and Acts, baptisms are followed by a reception of the Spirit, and with supernatural utterances, either from the heavens or the mouths of the baptized. These each speak to the relationship of the baptized with God as Father: For Jesus this is an eternal Sonship. We, on the other hand, are adopted into this status, given by divine grace what is Jesus’s by divine nature. We are adopted into God’s family, fellow heirs of Christ’s inheritance, and with Jesus, our new identity is beloved.
But this status as beloved, as adopted, as with most things in the Christian life, has elements of the already and the not yet. Paul’s effusive declaration that, together with Jesus, we are children of God, is followed by acknowledgement that these first fruits of our joyful adoption also await a completion, “We ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit groan in ourselves as we wait for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23) The final restoration of our flesh in the resurrection into the glory for which we were created is something that has yet to be fully revealed in us: “For in hope we were saved, but hope that is seen is not hope” (Rom 8:24).
Yet in the Transfiguration, three disciples were given a glimpse of that hope: the glory of a human body shining with divine light from within. This, which is Jesus’s by essence, shall be ours by his sharing of his inheritance with us as co-heirs. Paul ties our share in this inheritance directly to the glory of Jesus’s human nature which we already share with him: “When the fullness of time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those under the law that we might receive adoption” (Gal 4:4–5, emphasis mine).
This is what Andrew of Crete was getting at in my quote at the beginning of this essay, where the Dormition/Assumption of Mary connects to the Transfiguration. The destiny of a human life, given over to God’s purposes, united with Christ, and adopted into his family is glory. The church commemorates the glorious entrance into heaven of the Virgin as a reflection of the glory of Christ that was revealed in his Transfiguration, manifest in his Resurrection and Ascension, and will be at last given to those who have been united with his divine Sonship through baptism. Christ the firstborn of the resurrection, glorious on Mount Tabor, imparts to Mary and to all who die in hope of the resurrection a share in his glory. We who commemorate this reflected glory aspire within ourselves to reflect it in our living and dying. What Jesus is – glorious by divine nature and human by his birth from the Virgin – she becomes, as one human by nature and made glorious by his gift of divine humanity to her.
“To those… who had been purified by nearness to the divine, only to them did the Most Holy One make known an offprint, as it were, of this mystery, lifting the intellectual curtain… to reveal some portion of the hidden, secret glory within. If only we, too, illumined by this present feast of light, could be found worthy of the supernal glory of that light above all light, and could see the mystery clearly for ourselves!” — Andrew of Crete, Homily I, 105–106.
May we who groan within ourselves cast our eyes to the mount of Transfiguration, and perceive its glory reflected in the Virgin Mary, and in all the saints whose lives reflect the glory of Jesus Christ, the beloved Son, with whom God is ever well-pleased. May we find within this a call to the hope of which Paul speaks, for which the Holy Spirit cries out within us, “Abba, Father!” — the voice of beloved children, calling out to our loving Father.
Fr. Paul Wheatley is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas and a Ph.D. student at the University of Notre Dame.