While it wasn’t acknowledged much in my own church besides the children’s literature for the morning, yesterday was celebrated as “Transfiguration Sunday” in many churches across the world. It’s a little like the “last breath before the plunge” that is the season of Lent. The day is a remembrance of Jesus and his friends on a mountain for the appearance of Moses and Elijah and a theophany from heaven. As we cover it in class, it’s one of the moments that turn Jesus towards Jerusalem for His passion.
I had not realized it until recently that the Transfiguration was at the heart of a number of “truths” in the early church. In Seeing God, Hans Boersma surveys church history to get a better understanding of the “beatific vision,” the belief that Christians will see Jesus face-to-face and will know as we are known. Boersma asserts:
In particular, the conviction that the transfiguration revealed God’s glory in Christ and his eschatological kingdom was important for the early church, and so Christology and eschatology played key roles in most theological reflections on the transfiguration. The transfiguration appeared to render both Christ’s divinity and the eschaton present to the three disciples. The event served not as a symbol pointing away from itself to the glory of God and to a future kingdom that he would bring about, but it was a sacrament that rendered God himself and his future kingdom really present to the disciples on Mount Tabor. Thus, although in some respects the future kingdom may remain veiled, many have looked to the transfiguration narrative for an account in which God appeared in such a way as to reveal himself most fully and gloriously in Jesus Christ, and in so doing transformed or deified the disciples, drawing them into his beautifying light and thus into his eternal kingdom. What is more, the theophanic character of the transfiguration rendered it transformative in character, not only for the three disciples at Mount Tabor but also for later Christians. As a result, for centuries, the transfiguration was the subject of meditation, reflection, and debate throughout the Eastern and Western traditions.
Which is a fancy way of saying that maybe I’ve been underselling the significance of the Transfiguration for a long time (even though I render it with a capital T).
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I’ve been reading quite a bit of Boersma lately, mostly on a lark thanks to a blurb in Christianity Today. I stepped away from Seeing God after just under 200 pages so I could read a short, earlier work: Heavenly Participation. It’s been a good challenge for me that I hope to go into some over the Lenten season. A lot of it has to do with his approach to a “sacramental ontology,” a sticky point close to the heart of my own faith experience.
It is enough for now, though, to hold in the mind’s eye that odd scene of Jesus shot through with holy light, his closest friends blessedly confused, and the Father affirming the Son as he prepares for all that is next.
(image of The Transfiguration of Christ by Peter Paul Rubens)