The Transfiguration of Jesus
Published 27 February 2012
Rev Dr Max Champion at St John's UCA Mt Waverley Sunday 19 February 2012
Lessons -- Exodus 34:29-34; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-10
And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus charged them to tell
no one what they had seen until the Son of Man should have risen from
the dead. (Mark 9:9)
A surprising thing to say to end an extraordinary experience! In the presence of three figures of immense courage and faith the disciples are sworn to silence. It is odd, to say the least, to suppress enthusiasm at such a time. Do not 'shout it from the rooftops'. 'Tell no one!' Be silent!
Why does Jesus discourage publicity, especially when it shows him in such a favourable light?
It does not make sense. This is an awe-inspiring occasion. Jesus'
appearance is 'transfigured' in the presence of two other 'figures' -- Moses and Elijah -- who had also 'shone brightly' (v3) in the presence of God (Exodus 34:29ff). The fact that they appear together in this memorable vision suggests God's presence.
Other features also indicate special divine activity. 'High mountains', 'clouds' and 'special tents' were places where God's Word was addressed to the people who, like the three disciples (vv 5,6), were often bewildered and afraid. Christ's dazzling appearance, in which his clothes were unlike any other bleached fabric (v3), suggests the 'splendour of God' and the resurrection of the dead eagerly awaited by long-suffering Jews.
Why discourage publicity about this overpowering event?
Publicity is to be shunned because their ideas about who Jesus is had to be 'transformed'. He does fulfil ancient hopes, but in a totally unexpected way. Although he stands in the tradition of Moses and Elijah, it is not he but they who are 'honoured'. Unlike them, he is the very presence of God. He is a 'figure' unlike any other! He 'transfigures'
traditional hopes, 'standing alone' among prophets and reformers (v8).
In this vision a staggering claim is made. Jesus is the resplendent, 'beloved Son of God' (v7) who embodies the glory of his Father, the Creator of all things. He is the one figure in history who displays what David Bentley Hart calls the 'beauty of the infinite' (2003). The transfiguration reveals the 'infinite' to be not a vague mystery to be interpreted as we like, but the unique mystery of God's triune love for the world.
As Orthodox thinkers point out, the transfiguration is shot through with intimations of the Trinity. The Father declares Jesus to be his 'beloved Son' (v7); the Son is revealed as the unique embodiment of his Word (v8); and the Holy Spirit is represented by a 'cloud' that overshadows them (v7). Every detail signifies that what is taking place is above and beyond every logical or naturally occurring event. God's presence in Christ forces us to rethink what is rational and normal!
No wonder that for Eastern Orthodox Christians, the Feast of the Transfiguration is central, one of the great festivals like Christmas and Easter. It is the moment in Jesus' ministry when the splendour of the invisible God -- often described as the 'uncreated deity' or the One dwelling in 'light inaccessible' (Australian Hymn Book 80) -- is displayed in him with unequalled brilliance when the magnificence of God's love for us is revealed.
Why then the silence? In Chartres Cathedral (France) there is 'The Passion of Christ Window'. It is divided into a number of sections, the first of which is titled 'The Transfiguration of Christ'. This is the right order of things and why we, unlike Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians, celebrate it now: immediately before Lent. Enthusiasm about Jesus'
transfiguration would be misguided if the glory of God in the crucified Christ were forgotten. He would not be the embodiment of the costly, self- giving 'glory of God', 'God from God, Light from Light' . . . acting 'for our sake . . . ' (Nicene Creed).
The words of an Orthodox hymn put it beautifully:
You were transfigured on the mount, and Your Disciples, so far as
they were able, beheld Your glory, O Christ our God; so that, when
they should see You crucified, they should remember that Your
suffering was voluntary, and could declare to all the world that You
are truly the effulgent(radiant) Splendour of the Father!
Bishop Joseph of Arianzos, 'The Transfiguration (Metamorphoses) of our
The radiance of God is seen most clearly in Christ's costly, self-giving love.
The reason for silence is now clear. Silence is necessary to protect God's glorious self-revelation in Christ from being diminished. This happens whenever Jesus' ministry and fate are equated with other prophetic figures in history -- as in some liberal circles where he is treated as just another religious figure. It also happens whenever the glory of his life and mission bypasses rejection, suffering and crucifixion -- as in some
evangelical circles where he is regarded as a unique but remote figure.
Silence is also necessary because the disciples must learn that, in 'coming down from the mountain' (v9) they must look to the Light when the vision fades and all seems dark. It is so easy to become blind to the resplendent love of God in Christ in a society so easily dazzled by glitz and celebrity -- where people are desperate to have their lives 'transfigured' by coming into contact with glamorous public 'figures'.
We need to remind ourselves that it is only in coming into contact with Jesus Christ, the figure who stands alone from all others in embodying God's love, that life is transfigured or transformed. Therefore we should reject every attempt -- in the community and the Church -- to treat Jesus as if he were like any other figure in history. The transfiguration 'confirms without a margin of doubt that Jesus is not just a simple person, or a wise teacher, a virtuous reformer of some new-wave life- style, a charismatic miracle-worker, or even a Prophet or a Saint, but He is the Son of the Word of the Living God'. (Bishop Joseph of Arianzos.)
This is Good News! When life is bewildering and frightening and all seems very dark, we are invited to put our confidence in the only historical person who embodies the glory of the triune God and illuminates the 'beauty of the infinite'.
Indeed, is it not an incredible privilege to be called into the Body of Christ to share in the splendour of God's love for the world? Is it not a privilege to have a foretaste of that time when the radiance of God, that has shone from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, will triumph over evil and death? Is it not a privilege, and a great responsibility, to follow the One who is revealed in the transfiguration as 'God from God, Light from Light'?
When we see Christ in this light, silence cannot help but give way to exuberant praise and costly faith!
Rev Dr Max Champion is minister in the St John's Uniting Church,
Mt Waverley, Victoria, Australia. Dr Champion is Chair of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations within the UCA.