Transfiguration (my favorite feast!) is one of these most dramatic and highly symbolic episodes from the Gospels that I feel are best interpreted through visual imagery – a dance, or an icon. Sure, we read about it, I can talk to you about it, we can meditate on it… but we find it difficult to relate to it at first, as it is such an extreme experience, so utterly unlike anything that we have come to know about the realities of this world from the perspective of our own lives. We were not there with Jesus on Mt Tabor: what would it be like to have seen the sky open, the light suffusing the lonely figure on the rock… to feel the light of the divine presence forcing us back – bowing us down…
The sheer energy of this imagery is extraordinary, and so not surprisingly, the representation of transfiguration is among the most ancient, dramatic and distinctive traditional Orthodox icons. It depicts Christ in pure white robes, standing, in fact, often floating, on a rocky ridge. Moses and Elijah stand on peaks of rock at each side of him, representing linking both Christ and his disciples (that is ourselves) to the ancient master-story of God’s presence with his people. The light of Christ’s glory is reflected on their robes. They lived hundreds of years before him; yet what makes them the radiant agents of God is the light -- coming only from Jesus. Below, significantly below, are the 3 disciples, looking as though they were thrown from the top of the summit, collapsed in chaos: Peter covering his face, John on his knees, James -- flat on his back.
“Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness, that you may take it to its territory, and that you may discern the paths to its home?” (Job) Transfiguration overthrows our assumptions regarding the world we live in: what we believe to be “knowable” or “scientifically possible”; its characteristics of time and space, and the possibility of it being inhabited by God. In terms of space, traditional icons often show the lines of perspective reversed: they converge at our eyes, not in the distance. So when we look at the shining figure of Jesus set against the dark background representing the unknowable depths of the essence of God, we are invited to see him as the gateway to an endless journey into God’s life – but this journey actually takes us further into the depths of our own selves, into the heavenly energy which suffuses each of our own souls, transcending what is scientifically possible - humanly possible. And it is so often in meditative prayer that this cloud of unknowing envelopes us, not with darkness but with its dazzling light, as those accustomed to such practices know.
St Matthew introduces his account of transfiguration with the phrase “after 6 days”. Six days after what, exactly? In doing so, he hints to us that transfiguration is the climax of the creative work of God, whereupon we might enter into the joy of rest and completion of the 7th day. In addition, he echoes an old testament event when God first came to be amongst his people on a mountain in the wilderness, and invited Moses into his presence after 6 days. Both of these allusions help us to understand that in Jesus, even the earthly concept of time itself no longer works in straight ways. This allows our lives, like those of Moses and Elijah, to have meanings we can’t know of in this present moment: the real significance of our lives will only come apparent when we come to stand before the luminous vastness of the uncreated light. Until then, we are not the best judges of the meanings of our lives: what will really matter to God, what will show him best to the world through the lens of our existence? There is actually a sense of freedom that may be gained from this uncertainty; from the trusting in that the complex chaos of strands and shapeless pieces that comprise our experiences will one day connect in and around Christ.
But the Good News is that even our present day lives are compatible with God’s life: with the doubt and fear of Gethsemane, with the pain and death of Calvary. This good news is not the message of guaranteed consolation, but the knowledge that there is more to the infinite depth of our ultimate union with God; the boundaries of time and matter can from time to time be unsettled, and one day will be broken down. Yet for now, there is no escape – our faith will not take us out of this world, or spare us its risks. But, we may rest assured that God will not disappear if we encounter times of failure, pain, and doubt; that everything in our experience will be open to God. Psalm 139 is a beautiful poem worth reviewing that summarizes the truth of God’s omni-presence with and within us: God cannot be exiled from any part of this world.
The three disciples who are chosen to see the light on Mt Tabor are the ones who will accompany Jesus over his last hours on this earth. Peter on our icon is shielding his eyes because it is not easy to remain in a direct encounter with God for too long; neither he or ourselves are ready to see things in the light of God. But without such glimpses of a transformed creation, we would have to accept that death has the final word. Yet, God can and does live in the midst of death. It is into the heart of darkness that we are called to accompany him, like the three of his closest and most faithful disciples. We will play a role in Jesus’ by “what we have done and left undone”; we will witness the countless deaths of our neighbour, and in every denial of the truth, every time we abandon Jesus to his cross and our loved ones to themselves, we will die a myriad of our own personal deaths until the final one. But once we have seen the light of his glory on the mountain, we know that the door to everlasting life with God will always remain open.