Sunday next before Lent: Seeing the face of God

Dr Clare Amos, a laywoman who is Honorary Director for Lay Discipleship in the Diocese in Europe, (and the administrator of this blog) draws on the lectionary Gospel (Luke 9.28-36) and Epistle (2 Corinthians 3.12-4.2) to explore some implications of the transfiguration.

Sometimes it is the little differences between the writers of the three synoptic Gospels in retelling the same event in the life of Jesus that can lead us down some fascinating trails. So it is this week. The account of Jesus’ transfiguration appears in all three synoptic Gospels. It does not feature in John’s Gospel, but that is partly because John sees transfiguration and glory as permeating the whole story of Jesus, from its beginning to its end.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ transfiguration is indeed very similar to what appears in Mark and Matthew. But there are several small – yet significant – differences. One of course is that we are told what Jesus is discussing with Moses and Elijah: his ‘departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem’ (Luke 9.31). The word here translated as ‘departure’ is, in Greek, exodos – and no early reader of Luke’s Gospel would have failed to recognise the link between the word and the Exodus in which the people of Israel had been liberated and redeemed. It is a hint that we are intended to read the story of Jesus with that earlier Exodus in mind, a hint reinforced by the references to ‘redemption’ at key points at the beginning (Luke 2.38) and the end (Luke 24.21) of this Gospel. Another difference, at least between Luke and Mark, is that Luke focuses what happens to Jesus during the transfiguration specifically on the face of Jesus: ‘the appearance of his face changed’ (Luke 9.29).

Both directly and implicitly the face of Jesus is a significant motif in the Gospel of Luke. It is Luke alone who tells us of a face streaming with tears as Jesus weeps over Jerusalem (Luke 19.41-44) and Luke alone who mentions that after Peter had denied Jesus three times, ‘the Lord turned and looked at Peter’ (Luke 22.61).  One of my favourite books on Luke’s Gospel is by the German Benedictine monk, Anselm Grun. It is called Jesus: the Image of Humanity – Luke’s Account. Grun draws attention to the importance of ‘face’ in Luke, ‘In Luke’s stories the face of God shines out on us in the man Jesus. If we look at this picture we will be changed by it. Redemption comes about by reading the story. If I read it with all my senses, if – as Martin Luther puts it – I creep into the text, I will emerge from the text transformed. I have encountered the figure of Jesus, and this now shapes my figure.’[1]

Throughout the Old Testament it was considered dangerous to look on the face of God, ‘no one can see God and live’ (Exodus 33.20). The gift offered in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ is that now we CAN look on the face of God, for it is made visible to us in the face of Christ. The transfiguration is the moment par excellence when this truth is made transparently clear. Yet we are confronted by an alternative danger: that, as Grun suggests, if we really look upon the face of Christ we are going to find ourselves changed, becoming part of a movement of transfiguration which circles out from Christ with the goal of encompassing eventually the whole of creation. This is hinted at also in the Epistle for this week – 2 Corinthians 3.12-4.2.  The passage offers us an interesting problem of interpretation: in 3.18 it is not absolutely clear whether the Greek text refers to us ‘beholding’ or ‘reflecting’ the glory of the Lord. Perhaps the ambiguity is deliberate – we can only ‘behold’ if we are willing also to ‘reflect’ and ‘mirror’ to enable the circle of transfiguration to extend ever more widely.

theophanes transfiguration good version 1

Icon of the transfiguration by Theophanes the Greek, early 15th century,  located in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The circle of light emanating from Christ suggests that the goal of transfiguration is to encompass the whole of creation. 

The title of Grun’s book refers to Jesus as ‘the image of humanity’. One other key (though oft forgotten) aspect of the story of the transfiguration is that it visibly reminds us that human beings are created ‘in the image and likeness of God’ (Genesis 1.26-28). In his transfiguration Jesus is showing us ‘that our human nature has a destiny of glory’[2]. Perhaps then the implication is that we are called to see the face of God more fully in each other.

One of my enjoyable challenges during the last year or so has been writing a substantial chapter on the Christian understanding of human rights. I came to realise just how foundational the biblical understanding of the dignity of human beings as deriving from their creation in God’s image has been for the international commitment to human rights during the last 70 years or so. That commitment is significant for those of us who live in Europe today. Cities like Geneva and Brussels are places whose history is profoundly linked to the quest for the establishment of human rights, both within Europe and further afield. Yet there are places in Europe – not to mention the world beyond – where increasingly human rights are sat light to, infringed or derided. Populist nationalism tends to view human rights as an archetypal enemy. In these difficult days the transfiguration of Christ can act as a marker holding the dignity of our God-given humanity before our eyes.

I am beginning to look for potential contributors to the blog for the period May – August 2019. If you would be interested please contact me at clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

 

[1] Grun, p. 14

[2] Michael Ramsey, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ, 1949, p.144

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