Transfiguration of Christ the Saviour,
6 August 2003.
(Matt 17:1-9; 2 Peter 1:10-19)
By Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther
On July 16th 1945, in the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico, the United States conducted the world’s first nuclear test, codename Trinity. An observer (General Thomas F. Farrell) recorded this event. Firstly, he described the amazing effects of light; then the blast effects; and then ‘the strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to the Almighty.’
On the feast of the Transfiguration in 1945 the first atom bomb to be used in war was dropped on Hiroshima:
Three days later, August 9th, the second bomb, twice as powerful, was dropped on Nagasaki – a Christian town in Japan. The military effects of these two bombs are well known. The theological effects need to be considered. These acts violated the divine image. The Germans and Japanese had done this in different, terrible ways. But the Western Allies demonstrated that nuclear war could deny the divine image; and once a bomb had been detonated, others could repeat the experiment.
Many nations now possess nuclear weapons. All can destroy the world.
God makes the metamorphosis. By taking the name of God in vain and by mocking the idea of the metamorphosis, military power does not deny God or the power of the transfiguration. The inversion of values proves their truth. The military planners who gave the codename Trinity to the first atom bomb knew that they were playing God. What would happen next would not be predictable. God is not predictable! There is paradox in all this; and God – the Trinity in Unity – is the supreme paradox.
The transfiguration – metamorphosis – is the appearing of Jesus in glory during his life on earth. This is witnessed by Peter, James and John; and described in detail in Matthew, Mark and Luke. We could say that the whole of John is a statement of the resurrection: that event of which the transfiguration is a prototype. Today’s epistle relates the glory to the effort of living in faith.
‘Brothers, you have been called and chosen: work all the harder to justify it. If you do all these things there is no danger that you will ever fall away. In this way you will be granted admittance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.’
The first point: Keep the faith.
That is why I am continually recalling the same truths to you, even though you already know them and firmly hold them.’
Repetition has a value; we learn deep meanings with difficulty.
I am sure it is my duty, as long as I am in this tent, to keep stirring you up with reminders, since I know the time for taking off this tent is coming soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ foretold to me. And I shall take great care that after my own departure you will still have a means to recall these things to memory.’
In v. 15 the word exodos appears and it is related to eisodos in v. 11. The word for tent - skyni – refers also to the tents mentioned in the gospel passage about the Transfiguration. The epistle prepares us for the reference (vv. 17-18) to that event; and tells us that our entrance into the Church by baptism begins our experience of that glorified life which Christ manifests. When we depart physical life at death, we can enter into eternal life if we have been faithful Christians.
The words ‘as our Lord Jesus Christ foretold to me’ echo the appearance of Jesus to the disciples in John 21. 18,19, when Peter is told that in old age he will no longer be free to act, but will be led by others. The words may also refer to the story that Peter was leaving Rome during persecution when Jesus appeared to him and asked him where he was going? That story was current in the 2nd century.
‘It was not by any cleverly invented myths that we were repeating when we brought you the knowledge of the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; we had seen his majesty for ourselves.’
This emphasizes that the apostles had experience of Jesus, who alone could save those who truly believed. ‘He was honoured and glorified by God the Father, when the Sublime Glory itself spoke to him and said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favour”. We heard this ourselves spoken from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain.’
The writer is saying that the Metamorphosis really did occur; and that the meaning of the Gospel is true. The writer anticipates that there will be a second Coming of Christ, which will prove the glory shown by the Metamorphosis. ‘So we have confirmation of what was said in prophecies; and you will be right to depend on prophecy and take it as a lamp for lighting a way through the dark until the dawn comes and the morning star rises in your minds.’ The Messiah, by fulfilling the prophecies, would open up a new state of things, with a permanent deep change taking effect. What the Church teaches is all that: and that is the gospel. And the gospel is like a lamp someone carries in the early hours of the day, before dawn. Walk with care, but walk in faith.
The gospel passage comes after the declaration by Peter at Caeserea Philippi (ch 16). That has probably happened near the Day of Atonement, or the beginning of the Jewish new year. Thus, as the transfiguration passage begins ‘Six days later’ we may be on the edge of the Feast of Tabernacles or Tents. That feast commemorates a rock which provides the world with water, and also the time which the Hebrews spent in travelling with tents in the wilderness (Exodus 23: 14-16; Leviticus 23: 33-44). So those images may be in the background. We are told that Jesus took Peter, James and John ‘up a high mountain where they could be alone.’ This reminds us of Exodus 24: 16 ff, where the cloud settles on Mount Sinai and covers it for 6 days, and Moses is called by God on the seventh day into the cloud. Both Moses and Prophet Elias had received knowledge of God on mountains; now Jesus has withdrawn to a mountain, taking Peter and John with him. ‘There in their presence he was transfigured – metemorphothe -: his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light.’ The second point: We go apart with Jesus to be changed by him.
In Exodus, 34: 29-30, Moses radiates light after he has spoken with God; all the people can see him transformed and dare not approach him. But in this event, closeness is emphasized. We are involved, touched by the glory. ‘Suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared to them; they were talking with him. Then Peter spoke to Jesus. “Lord,” he said “it is wonderful for us to be here; if you wish I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”’ Peter wants to do honour to the Lord and to Moses and Elijah, who were believed not to have seen death.
But it is not a question of making a suitable canopy for the holy visitors and the Son of God whom Peter has recently declared to be that (Matt. 16: 16). The main thing is the experience of being covered by the glory of God, and what to do as a response.
‘He was still speaking when suddenly a bright cloud covered them with shadow, and from the cloud there came a voice which said “This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favour. Listen to him.’
In Exodus 40: 34-35, God speaks from the cloud and the same word – epeskiasen – is used for the cloud’s descent on and covering of the meeting tent. The third point: God through Jesus includes us in his life and touches us with his glory. This is paradoxical. ‘…a bright cloud covered them with shadow…’ The shadow of the bright cloud holds the light focused on us.
The words from the cloud deepen the wonder of the disciples. ‘When they heard this, the disciples fell on their faces, overcome with fear. But Jesus came up and touched them. “Stand up,” he said “do not be afraid.” And when they raised their eyes they saw no one but only Jesus.’ Moses and Elijah represent the Old Testament, the first Contract between God and true believers; but now that Jesus is fulfilling that Contract, the old law passes away. Jesus does not stand separate; he comes up to the disciples and touches them, to bring them back to rational thought. We are all in this together. We shall go down from the mountain into the world again. But the mystery remains.
‘As they came down from the mountain Jesus gave them this order, “Tell no one about the vision until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”’
The event looks ahead to the performance by Jesus of his part in the new Contract.
The Transfiguration gives understanding to the closest disciples. Like Peter’s declaration at Caeserea Philippi, this understanding of who Jesus is can only become clear later. The voice at the baptism (Matt: 3: 17) showed something of Jesus’ identity. This event shows more. The cross and the resurrection will make everything clear. The revelation in 1945, that we could destroy the world, followed from the inverting of meaning in two facts. Firstly, there is the fact of God. The coherent diversity of God, God the Trinity, is turned into the conflict of forces through man’s dominance of matter. The atom is a kind of image of the Trinity. The splitting of a nucleus into fragments releases enormous destructive force. Protons and neutrons are no longer in balance with electrons. Each element is now taken out of its constructive relationship. Matter moves towards chaos. Relationship is turned into aggression. The conversion of the energy is destructive. Secondly, the idea of the metamorphosis is also inverted; and what is transformed is atomised, de-constructed, annihilated. The process of evolution is put into reverse gear. Instead of the shadow of a bright cloud holding light, we stand under the shadow of a mushroom cloud threatening mass destruction.
What do any Christians say about that? ... Almost nothing.
The events of our world so often pollute and wreck. But the Transfiguration sanctifies. We can perceive our environment and ourselves in the true light, not of destruction, not of entropy, but the movement to greater complexity, fuller consciousness, and higher order in God. The Transfiguration shows us the energies of God and we can adore the unapproachable essence. The true nature of Jesus is revealed: his glory, his unity with the Father, his relation to the Holy Spirit. The light communicates that glory; but it evokes not terror but love in reply. It is not power for its own sake, but power for our sake, which is revealed: life, incarnated in Jesus.
So firstly, we have to keep the faith.
Secondly, we must go apart with Jesus to be changed by him.
Thirdly, we must remember that God through Jesus includes us in his life and touches us with his glory:
‘This is my Son… Listen to him.’
‘Jesus came up and touched them. “Stand up”, he said “do not be afraid.”’
Light, life, love: these are the facts of the Transfiguration.
The shadow of the bright cloud holds the light focused on us.
Our own metamorphosis begins the reconstruction.
Being the Church, we come down from the mountain and in faith we attempt to transfigure the world.
© Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther. August 6 2003.
® ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN COMMENT Editorial Presentation:
Watch of Kengo Futagawa (59 at the time) was crossing the Kannon Bridge (1,600 meters from the hypocenter) by bicycle on his way to do fire prevention work. He jumped into the river, terribly burned. He returned home, but died on August 22, 1945. "Hiroshima Collection"
Trinity, Rublev. Interpreted.
St. Clement de Taoll. Museo de Arte, Barcelona.
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