Friday, August 5, 2016

The Transfiguration: “With Unveiled Faces”

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ towards God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 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. 2 Corinthians 3:4-6, 18, NRSV

The Feast of the Transfiguration is a celebration not only of one of the most significant events in Christ’s ministry, but our own share in that event…and through it, all of the rich life of God available through this communion of love.

Christ’s Transfiguration on the Holy Mountain is one of the most important manifestations of Christ’s divine nature and mission mentioned in the New Testament. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell of it, and it is referred to in 2 Peter 1. The experience builds directly on a number of Old Testament accounts, notably the story of Moses’ “shining countenance” when descending from Mt. Sinai in Exodus 34, and Elijah’s encounter with God on Mt. Horeb in 1 Kings 19, where he finds the Lord not in earthquake, fire, or tempest…but in a “still, small voice.”

St. Leo the Great in writing about the Transfiguration sees it as having a number of purposes: first, to remove the utter shame and scandal that could utterly crush the faith of the disciples when they were to see Jesus suffer death through crucifixion. Here, we see the kindness of God through the times he “paves the way” for us by showing us things that give hope and purpose to life before we will need them.

This is one reason an active life of worship, daily times of prayer, study of the scriptures, and the practice of consciously living in God’s presence day-by-day is so important: it is through the eyes accustomed to seeing God’s active hand in life that we are able to “tune in” to divine communication in ways other than the proverbial baseball bat. Becoming sensitive to the many Transfigurations in faith always points us back to the Great Transfiguration of Christ, the one that assures us that no matter how much we suffer, Christ’s love for us will see us through and the glory promised to us in baptism will be ours at the end of our earthly journey. Our life, as St. Paul says, is “hidden with God” now, and each of us has a transfigured reality shared with our Risen Head. No one can take this away from us.

St. Leo also identifies this day with the teaching in the Law of Moses that “before two or three witnesses every word is ratified.” Moses and Elijah…the Law and the Prophets, the living (Elijah, who was swept up into heaven bodily) and the dead (Moses, whose death is recorded in the Pentateuch), are the chosen witnesses whose presence ratifies the Gospel message. Thus, the Feast of the Transfiguration is for St. Leo a strengthening of our trust and faith in Christ, just as it was for those chosen disciples he invited along with him for that journey.

Here we see that Christ doesn’t give each believer the same experience; not all of the disciples were present for his Transfiguration. Christ is the wise judge who knows what each one of us needs and can share wisely with others. We need to beware of any kind of spiritual envy for those who have been granted spiritual experiences or gifts we have not—just as those who have been given such gifts must guard against arrogance about something not of their own making or merit. The gifts God gives to each of us are for our benefit and to be shared with others only in so far as they benefit them. It is worth noting that Christ orders the disciples to keep “mum” about this event to others until the right time, and that when St. Peter in his second epistle does speak of it, it with profound reverence and humility—not pride or even curiosity.

At the first Evensong for this Holy Day we read from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, and there we encounter the words quoted at the head of this post. The Blessed Apostle is telling us that the spiritual life is always initiated by God (something so central to St. Augustine’s teaching later on and essential to all healthy Christian life in general). The Transfiguration makes this manifest. Jesus calls disciples, and he calls some of them up with him to the Holy Mountain in order to give them not a sermon or instruction but a direct experience of divine presence without the usual filters. Moving from “letter” (the filtered experience of written or a third party transmission) to “spirit” (the direct encounter) is the natural condition of the Christian.

It is a regular sign of spiritual progress to go from a faith based on what others have written or told us to a direct experience of God ourselves. There is nothing remotely “wrong” with the former—to say so would be to dishonor the Holy Scriptures, the saints and great Christian thinkers and poets through the ages. What we are speaking of here is not a choice between, but a deeper appropriation of and (ultimately) a moving into the reality that these things and people themselves communicate. That “reality” as St. Paul tells us is life in the Spirit itself…the self-same Spirit who inspires the Holy Scriptures, shines through the saints, and brings us the communion with God found in all the sacraments.

The Transfiguration is an image of the destiny of each person in Christ: to partake of the Uncreated Light of God available through Christ in the Holy Spirit. By “seeing the glory of the Lord” through our lives of worship, prayer, study, and service (we must never try to sever these things in the life of faith), we “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” This, as all things in our faith, comes “from the Lord, the Spirit.”

The Transfiguration is far more than some kind of “mystical event” remote from human experience. Each time we enter into worship, especially joining with the whole Church all ages and places in the Eucharist, we are experiencing transfiguration. I have seen it myself, for I have seen people beaten down with sorrow and care at the start of the Liturgy changed in spirit and countenance by its conclusion. I have seen recipients of prayer overcome not with psychological “self-delusion,” but an awareness they are loved, forgiven, healed, welcomed into a kind of Life by its nature death-proof and glorious.

One of the very dissatisfying aspects of much American and Western Christianity is how far apart God and humanity still seem to be in actual practice. Anglicanism, with its deep sacramentality, its practice of the “three-fold rule” of Eucharist—Daily Office—Personal devotion, and its refusal to divide “religious” from “secular” life (as made very clear in the Book of Common Prayer), cannot (or, if it is tempted to do so, cannot for long) fall into this error. What we have is not a theory or an ideology, but a life, a practice, an experience of being made one with Christ.

It is this sort of life made manifest in Christ’s Transfiguration, a life of change into an eternal thing even as it makes its way through a mortal journey. In this, we follow Our Lord’s pattern. Even though he was the God in the flesh, his desire to bring all of us to salvation meant he bowed his head to human mortality and died before he triumphed over death in the Resurrection. Yet, even as he “set his face toward Jerusalem” and all that would mean, he showed to those he chose the incomprehensible truth and promise of a life beyond death—a life he and he alone was—in the NRSV’s language above—“competent” to share. That competence he has given to us, allowing us to more than gaze upon him with unveiled faces, but to live in him now and forever; for this we are immeasurably grateful.

The Collect for the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord

O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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