27 February 2024, The Tablet

The Transfiguration

Mark 9:2-10, 2 LENT B | 25 FEBRUARY 2024

The Transfiguration is recounted by all three synoptic gospels at exactly the same place in the narrative and with almost exactly the same detail. That can be said of only a handful of episodes and what set these events apart was the early Church’s conviction that they are crucial for understanding who Jesus is. And yet, few episodes in the gospels are more misunderstood than the one in this gospel, Jesus’ Transfiguration.

By far the most common misunderstanding is to see the Transfiguration as a revelation of Jesus’ divinity. It is, indeed, a revelation, and Jesus is, of course, divine. But the misunderstanding lies in thinking that the purpose of the Transfiguration is to reveal that the divine Jesus, as opposed to the human Jesus, is the real Jesus: as if his divinity has been concealed until now by his humanity. According to this view, Jesus at the Transfiguration allows his human mask, so to speak, momentarily to slip, in order to bolster his disciples’ faith by revealing his divinity.

The Transfiguration is thus said to be a much-needed reassurance for the disciples, in view of what’s about to befall Jesus in Jerusalem. In the end, all will be well: he is, after all, God, despite appearances. But this view is perilously close to one of the earliest of all Christian heresies, docetism, the view that, since Jesus was more divine than human, he didn’t really suffer or die, but only went through the motions. Or the related heresy that Jesus is only human for the time being, his humanity being cast off when the task of saving us is complete.

It’s that view, allied with other explicitly dualist views, that encourages a certain, still widespread piety, also bordering on 2 heresy, that puts exclusive emphasis on the soul, as opposed to the body, as if our bodies were an encumbrance, dangerous in life and discarded at death. Aquinas explicitly denies that we are our souls alone. So how should we understand the Transfiguration? What Peter, James and John see at the Transfiguration is a vision of Jesus’ glorified humanity: they see him as he will be, risen from the dead and ascended into heaven. They see, in other words, not divinity concealed by humanity, but divinity revealed in his humanity. In the Incarnation, God reveals himself in our vulnerable, frail, mortal flesh.

The disciples were most certainly given this vision as a reassurance. But they were given it because what was about to happen to Jesus in Jerusalem really was going to happen to him. Tragedy was about to befall him: Jesus was going to be defeated, to fail in his mission to convince Israel of the truth: and the cost of his failure would be the loss of his human life. But it’s precisely in the awfulness of his real suffering and death, that he reveals God’s love, a revelation that will be fulfilled in Jesus’ (and our) resurrection. Peter, of course, can’t even begin to understand, neither here at the Transfiguration, nor earlier, when Jesus had earlier predicted his death. Eventually, all Jesus’ closest disciples would be scattered in their disbelief and disillusionment. None of them could get their minds round the fact that Jesus would be glorified in his humanity precisely through his acceptance of ultimate failure, through his acceptance of death. But Jesus’ glory would result from his letting go of any notion of worldly or even ‘spiritual’ success.

This is the counter-intuitive and counter-cultural dynamic intrinsic to Christian existence. The only things in this life that are worth having are the things we must be prepared to let go of: and we will possess eternally 3 only what we’re prepared to let go of. Isn’t that the ‘logic’ of love? The Transfiguration, then, is first and foremost about Jesus’ glorified humanity, in which he reveals God to be infinite love. But Jesus’ Transfiguration also shows us the both glory for which we were created and the way to that glory. Jesus shows us that only by following him, by being fully human, as he was, and accepting the consequences of being fully human, as he did, will we come alive, fully alive, as he was and is. And that’s why this gospel reporting the Transfiguration falls always on the second Sunday of Lent. Just when our Lenten penance is beginning to bite, when the novelty is wearing off and the five weeks of Lent feel like forever, we’re reminded what Lent’s for: it is a time for a ‘reset’, to use the modern jargon; a time for setting our hearts on God, and those in this life whom God has given us to love, not in easy words but in death-defying, life-affirming deeds.


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