Living by vision: the biblical summons to transfiguration

The Sunday before Lent is now frequently referred to as ‘Transfiguration Sunday’ as we read each year one of the accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration. This year the lectionary readings for this Sunday are 2 Kings 2.1-12; Psalm 50.1-6; 2 Corinthians 4.3-6; Mark 9.2-9. We focus below particularly on the Gospel reading from Mark as, following on from last week’s blog reflections, we continue to explore New Testament insights into human responsibility for the wellbeing of creation.

Given the focus of these two blogs I am glad to be able to offer the contact details of the diocesan environment officer, Revd Elizabeth Bussmann (mebussmann-morton@bluewin.ch) and to mention at Elizabeth’s request that on Saturday 17th April 2021 (10am – 12 CET) the Revd Dr Dave Bookless will reflect on: Christianity & the Environment: The Mission of God and the Mission of God’s People’. Details will shortly be available on the diocesan website about how to register for the event.

Clare Amos
Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe
Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

The apse mosaic of the transfiguration of Christ in the Church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna. The named figures of Moses and Elijah situated either side of the Cross assure us that the mosaic is depicting this biblical scene.

‘Transfiguration is living by vision; standing foursquare in the midst of a broken, tortured, oppressed, starving, dehumanizing reality, yet seeing the invisible, calling it to come, behaving as if it on the way, sustained by elements of it that have come already, within and among us. In those moments when people are healed, transformed, freed from addictions, obsessions, destructiveness, self worship or when groups or communities or even, rarely, whole nations glimpse the light of the transcendent in their midst, there the New Creation has come upon us. The world for one brief moment is transfigured. The beyond shines in our midst – on the way to the cross.(Walter Wink)

This is a stunning comment by the American theologian Walter Wink which I have returned to again and again, ever since I first came across it – probably about 25 years ago now. It is a reminder if I needed it that not only is the biblical motif of ‘transfiguration’ absolutely core to our Christian faith, but also that it has profound contemporary relevance. I am aware that in some circles the transfiguration – and the biblical narratives associated with it – are seen as a bit airy-fairy or ‘irrelevant’. Not only is this view deeply wrong, but it seems oblivious to the fact that ideas linked to the transfiguration have been drawn on by several Christian theologians who worked out their theology in situations that were profoundly challenging and personally dangerous. The martyred Roman Catholic bishop Oscar Romero is a prime example.  In his published sermons Romero frequently returns to the motif of the Transfiguration, and draws a parallel with the need for the transfiguration of El Salvador, its society and its political life.  

There is a beautiful  quotation by Archbishop Michael Ramsey about the centrality of the transfiguration:

The transfiguration: ‘stands as a gateway to the saving events of the gospel and is a mirror in which the Christian mystery is seen in its unity. Here we perceive that the living and the dead are one in Christ, that the old covenant and the new are inseparable, that the Cross and the glory are of one, that the age to come is already here, that our human nature has a destiny of glory, that in Christ the final word is uttered and in him alone the Father is well pleased. Here the diverse elements in the theology of the New Testament meet.(The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ)

Ramsey wrote this in 1949. Nearly twenty years later in 1967,  J.W.C Wand, formerly Bishop of London, offered a view of the transfiguration that was even more comprehensive:

‘It is actually possible to regard transfiguration as the fundamental idea in the Christian religion and as placing in a nutshell the whole story of the individual Christian life as well indeed as that of society as a whole.’

As I suggested towards the end of the blog last week, one way that the transfiguration has been drawn on in recent years in relation to ‘society as a whole’, is to explore what it has to say about the relationship between humanity, creation and the environment. This is especially important at the moment. For even if we cannot precisely place all the threads we are obliquely aware that there is somehow a connection between our human exploitation of creation and our environment and the spread of the virus that is responsible for our present pandemic.

Peter’s words, confronted with the transfiguration of his master and friend were, ‘It is good for us to be here.’ (Mark 9.5) I think it is right to hear in this language a resonance of God’s own repeated affirmation as creation proceeds through Genesis 1, ‘And God saw that it was good.’ As Wink suggests, the transfiguration holds before our eyes the possibility of the dawning of a new creation.

I mentioned in what I wrote last week that the connection between transfiguration and the environment has been an insight which we owe especially to Eastern Orthodox Christians. The Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, has engaged with ecological concerns particularly deeply: he is often referred to as ‘the Green Patriarch’.  The theme has also been explored powerfully by the Orthodox theologian Bishop Kallistos Ware (who began his Christian life as an Anglican). ‘Within the Gospel story, the Transfiguration of Christ stands out as the ecological event par excellence.’ See

Safeguarding the Creation for Future Generations – Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration (orth-transfiguration.org)

The following comments are drawn in a slightly edited form from Bishop Kallistos’ lecture. The full text is available via the link given.

  • The Transfiguration reveals the Spirit-bearing potentialities of all material things.
  • Christ, so the event on Mount Tabor makes clear, came to save not our souls alone, but also our bodies. Moreover, we human beings are not saved from but with the world. In and through Christ – and, by virtue of Christ’s grace, in and through each one of us – the whole material creation, as Saint Paul expresses it, ‘will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (Romans 8.21). We human beings, in other words, are called to continue and to extend the mystery of Christ’s Transfiguration on the mountain

Bishop Kallistos draws attention to the wonderful mosaic of the transfiguration at a church in Ravenna (St Apollinare in Classe) in which creation motifs appears strongly. The complete mosaic is portrayed at the beginning of the blog. The detail from it below draws attention to the cross at the heart of the mosaic:

The Apse Mosaic at Sant’Apollinare in Classe, detail: The Cross with the face of Christ at its centre
  • … let us recall the Cross which dominates the Transfiguration mosaic in Sant’ Apollinare. What is it, we ask, that links Paradise in the past (Genesis 1-2) with Paradise in the future (Revelation 21-22)? There is but one answer: the Cross. Without cross-bearing, there can be no cosmic transfiguration. Without sacrifice and kenosis (self-emptying) after the example of Jesus Christ crucified, there can be no ecological renewal.
  • All this needs to be applied to our ecological work, whether for our own or for future generations. There can be no transformation of the environment without self-denial, no fundamental renewal of the cosmos without voluntary sacrifice. In Christ’s words, ‘Truly, truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit’ (John 12:24). Gain comes through loss, life through death, transfiguration through cross-bearing.
  • We cannot save what we do not love. There can be… no true wisdom, without love; and equally there can be no cosmic transfiguration without love.

Love is, of course, very present in the story of the transfiguration through the proclamation of Christ as ‘Beloved Son’, It  is a sign that, as with earlier biblical beloved sons (think of Isaac in Genesis 22), suffering awaits him, and if we are to be caught up in his transfiguration, it is a vocation that may indeed (as Kallistos Ware suggests) require us to identify with his suffering too.

The placing of the story of Christ’s transfiguration in the middle of the Gospel is deeply suggestive of the way that in this mountain-top event are woven together the all threads of the Christian story: The ‘epiphany’ of Christ at the baptism, the ‘incarnation’ portrayed in his Galilean journeys, the crucifixion and resurrection.

In the Gospel of Mark, the account that we are reading this year, the transfiguration is at the literal heart of the Gospel (the beginning of chapter 9 in a Gospel of 16 chapters).  Indeed, as I have noted elsewhere, the transfiguration on the mountain-top is an event which ‘bridges’ together two events that take place in the ‘depths’. The first of these is the baptism of Christ, in the ‘deep’ waters. The verbal link ‘beloved Son’ (Mark 1.11; 9.7) between the baptism and transfiguration is obvious. But there is also a ‘contrasting’ link between the bright mountain-top of the transfiguration, and the deep and dark valley of Gethsemane, when the one proclaimed as Son on the mountain-top prays to his father using the word ‘Abba’ (Mark 14.36).

It is interesting that the Common Worship lectionary has in each of its three years set the reading of the Gospel account of the transfiguration for the Sunday before Lent. For those of us who have long memories of previous lectionaries this is far more satisfactory than the place allotted to it in the ASB lectionary when its positioning on the Fourth Sunday in Lent was unhelpful – not least because of its ‘clash’ with Mothering Sunday! 

In fact I think placing this story on the Sunday before Lent is also more satisfactory than the Sunday allotted to it in the current Roman Catholic version of the Revised Common Lectionary (where it appears on the Second Sunday of Lent). There is such a powerful sense in all three Synoptic Gospels that as soon as Jesus comes down from the mountain of transfiguration he deliberately ‘sets his face’ to turn towards Jerusalem and the passion and suffering that awaits him there. Reading, as we now do, the transfiguration story at this precise point in the Christian year the light on the mountain-top catches up the brightness of the Epiphany season, yet also enables us to illumine our way as we turn our faces sharply towards Jerusalem, and to the Cross: ‘Without cross-bearing, there can be no cosmic transfiguration.’ ‘The beyond shines in our midst on the way to the cross.’

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