“…for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
– Gerard Manley Hopkins
The Feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated August 6, yet the gospel passage itself is closely associated with the beginning of Lent. The Revised Common Lectionary proclaims it on the Sunday before Lent while the Catholic Lectionary does so on the Second Sunday of Lent. Both lectionaries give the First Sunday of Lent over to the temptation of Jesus in the desert.
Why should the Transfiguration story – which each of the synoptic gospels places about midway in the course of things – mark our yearly return to the Lenten journey? Standard answers include that the association is already implicit in the synoptic accounts, which place the story near Jesus’ final turn towards Jerusalem; that the Taboric vision is a preview of Christ’s crucified, resurrected, and glorified body; or that the passage links the Old and New Covenants, with Moses and Elijah serving as metonyms for the Law and prophets.
Whatever the explanation, the Transfiguration, with its cryptic signs, wonders, and occasions for awe, has long proved a source for profound theological reflection, fascinating Christological speculation, or incisive literary analysis. It can also stand out from the rest of the gospel narrative as a baffling anomaly.
I recall attending a Transfiguration Day liturgy where the homilist said, “I don’t know what to do with today’s gospel. It’s just too showy.” At the time, I thought he was shirking his duty, but now I’m not so sure. There are mysteries in scripture – as in life – that mere words can’t hope to penetrate. Perhaps that’s why the gospels don’t narrate the actual moment of Jesus’ resurrection, revealing it instead as an event already occurred, offstage as it were, or – as in Matthew’s account – behind the stone.
All this should be enough to scare off amateur theologians like me. Forgive me then for a reading that is hardly new, though perhaps overlooked.
In Book IV of Adversus Haereses, the Second Century church father, Irenaeus of Lyon, writes, “Gloria enim Dei vivens homo, vita autem hominis visio Dei.” Many of us have seen this in truncated form: just the first half, often freely translated as “The Glory of God is the human fully alive.” I would render the complete sentence as “The Glory of God is the (hu)man alive, while the life of (the hu)man is the vision of God.” There’s no “fully” in Ireneaus’ Latin original. The point, however, is clear: God manifests God’s glory in our life and in our bodies, and our life’s focus and end is in seeing God.
In the Seventh Century, Maximus the Confessor, drawing on texts such as 2 Corinthians 3:18
And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
and 1 John 3:2
Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.
suggested that the Transfiguration was not so much a change in Jesus or his appearance, but a radical transformation in the disciples themselves, who suddenly saw things as they truly are.
Maximus in no way denies the miraculous nature of the Transfiguration. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter, James, and John find the sinful distortions of their vision stripped away. They glimpse the God revealed in Christ not because Jesus removed his veil, but because he has removed theirs. As Maximus puts it,
They passed over from flesh to spirit before they had put aside this fleshly life, by the change in their powers of sense that the Spirit worked in them, lifting the veils of the passions… (Ambiguum, X)
I think there’s substance to these centuries-old insights, something too important to forget. By God’s grace, we may see God. In seeing God, “we are being transformed into the same image.” What damage sinfulness dealt our having been made in God’s image and likeness is being healed literally as we watch.*
I rarely feel that work being done to me. I sometimes feel my vision and desires noticeably worsen “as I watch.” Yet I long to be healed. I long to see rightly. I long to sense God’s transforming work in me. What a grace, then, to read in Second Peter: “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
I find this a helpful image for Lent. Our poor Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving do nothing to change God. They are our feeble but cherished attempts to cooperate with the work God is already doing in us – stripping away the distortions of our senses and desires that keep us from seeing rightly.
Our practices are cherished as a parent cherishes a small child’s efforts to set the table for dinner. Mom can do much better, but her heart knows not to interrupt. Instead, she guides, advises, and encourages her child. She knows this is another step in her child’s growth. She can’t help but be well pleased.
There’s yet another mystery implicit in the Transfiguration story. If, when rightly seen, Jesus’ human body is radiant with the glory of God, to what degree do our own bodies and the bodies of our neighbors shine with the image and likeness of God, however shattered and tarnished by sin?
Irenaeus tells us the living human is God’s glory, and if you’re unwilling to take his word for it, how about Jesus’? Eight chapters later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus identifies himself with “the least of these.” Matthew 25 has no time for subtleties: see Christ in everyone and act accordingly, or you can go to hell.
And that returns us to the Transfiguration as a transformation of vision. What corrective lenses or spiritual LASIK might I need to see God shining in everyone I meet – not just those I love or agree with or who may prove useful, but the detestable, disagreeable, and destitute? What array of mirrors might turn my attention from the mote in my neighbor’s eye to the enormous plank in mine? What salves might finally open my sin-blurred eyes to God’s glory in the many whose words, actions, and passions so offend me? I trust that God knows. I’m sure I don’t. But I know where to look while it happens.
It’s a timely grace, then, to turn toward Lent in this savagely polarized political moment. I’m not suggesting we turn our backs on the troubling events of late or the efforts of those we find misguided. Speak, by all means, when truth must be spoken. Act, as you must, for righteousness’ sake. Do all these and more, but do them with your eyes on Christ, whose crucified glory is no less apparent in your enemy than in you.
This doesn’t come easily for me. Like the child setting the table, my intentions outstrip my skills. I’m easily distracted. I’ll likely make a mess of things. I usually do. I’ll need lots of help and the good example of my siblings. (That would be you.) It helps me to know we’re in this together, that I share this struggle with so many others.
I have little doubt I’ll fail again in my Lenten observance. With you help and example, thought, I hope to fail better than in previous Lents. And if, come Easter, my sight, senses, and desires seem anything but transformed, I maintain a child’s trust that my efforts, like yours, are pleasing to God, who patiently wipes our eyes and heals our heart as we watch.
* The Eastern Christian traditions (Oriental, Orthodox, and Eastern Catholic) draw a distinction between the image and likeness of God. The likeness of God – the perfection as God’s children who love God and one another – was lost to humanity through sin, while the image of God, though deformed, obscured, and veiled – remains. in the West, Irenaeus makes the same distinction between simultudo and imago.