transfiguration_raphael.jpg Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration, which is apparently one of the high holy days in the Christian calendar, a “major feast.” Hey, I’m always up for feasting. Odd that this would be considered such a high day and yet I only stumbled upon it by chance through reading a summer post by Phyllis Tickle. She writes,

For us, the Feast of the Transfiguration is one of the church’s 12 Great Feast Days. That is, it’s right on up there with the Nativity [Christmas] and the Feast of the Resurrection [Easter,] at least in religious terms, if not popular or cultural ones. It calls us to remember the apex or culminating event of Jesus’ public life in which, on a mountaintop and in full view of Peter, James, and John, Jesus was transfigured into a radiance beyond their later description. Moses and Elijah were also present during the Transfiguration itself, one on either side of him; and even as the gathered apostles watched, a bright cloud overshadowed them and a voice, speaking from the cloud, said, “This is my son, the Beloved; and with him I am well pleased. Listen to him.” From that moment on, the course of history was set and, in many ways, the church was born.

The Greek word used in the New Testament accounts of the events on the Mount of the Transfiguration is metamorphothe. While the ages have translated that word as transfigured, it actually comes closer to conveying something English can’t quite convey. It wants to say something like “changed shape and beingness and allness into some other form thereof,” or something equally awkward and wordy. What happened, in other words and in the fullest sense, was a “metamorphosis,” which again is Greek and again has no really clear or felicitous analog in English.

The transfiguration is recorded in the synoptic gospels, but not in John’s gospel. This puzzled me at one time, but of course John writes for his own purposes and writes much later than the synoptics. In many cases, John’s selection of events to tell and his purpose in them are quite different from a literary standpoint. In fact, sometimes one might wonder if John chose the events he did to include in his gospel with a kind of, “here’s a good one the other guys haven’t told you” approach. I’d have thought the transfiguration would thematically fit within John, so it seemed an odd omission. And then I began thinking more about John 12:20-33, here from the NET Bible:

Now some Greeks were among those who had gone up to worship at the feast. So these approached Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and requested, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew, and they both went and told Jesus. Jesus replied, “The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the solemn truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains by itself alone. But if it dies, it produces much grain. The one who loves his life destroys it, and the one who hates his life in this world guards it for eternal life. If anyone wants to serve me, he must follow me, and where I am, my servant will be too. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.

“Now my soul is greatly distressed. And what should I say? ‘Father, deliver me from this hour’? No, but for this very reason I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd that stood there and heard the voice said that it had thundered. Others said that an angel had spoken to him. Jesus said, “This voice has not come for my benefit but for yours. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (Now he said this to indicate clearly what kind of death he was going to die.)

It seems to me that this might in some sense be referred to as the “Johannine Transfiguration” (and I do in some of my own notes on the gospel) in the same way that the Johannine Pentecost (20:19-23) has its own designation apart from the event recorded by Luke. Although recorded quite differently, John’s account serves the same purpose from a literary and theological standpoint. So here, in chapter 12, Jesus is addressed by God the Father in a voice from heaven to affirm Jesus and the Father/Son relationship between them.

As a side note, I used to use this passage when teaching on the prophetic ministry, with an observation which is applicable both to modern-day prophetic ministry as well as to understanding what some of the biblical prophets experienced. Here we have an audible voice booming from heaven, one which was easily understood by some — but not all — of those present. Often we elevate the audible voice of God to the level of certain clarity in our minds… “Oh, I’d have to hear ‘The Audible Voice’ if I were supposed to be a missionary in Africa,” we might quip. But as evidenced here (and to some extent in the case of the boy Samuel), even the audible voice of God can be easily misunderstood and written off as something else… like thunder. We can tend to think that the biblical prophets had an unusual clarity in the revelation they received, but when we stop and consider what it must have been like for them, we discover it ain’t necessarily so.

As for the transfiguration and the failure of the English language to convey just what it was, Tickle says, “Being convicted of something one can neither own nor ingest, articulate nor incarnate, is itself a glory beyond our grasping, whether we be ancient apostles or God’s newest converts … which says to me that the great truth of [the] Feast of the Transfiguration just may be that experiencing God always lies just beyond the reach of articulated theology, and never within it.”

Good observation… and reflective of a position which I find people increasingly gravitate toward: a comfort with not explaining all of the mystery.

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