The Feast of the Transfiguration marks an event in the life of Jesus that cannot be understood apart from his death. The account of the Transfiguration in Matthew, Mark, and Luke follows Jesus telling his disciples about the cost of discipleship and predicting his own death. When the Transfiguration is read in the larger context of this narrative, it seems to suggest that glory is the product of darkness.
Frankly, the Transfiguration is confusing and deeply mystifying, and maybe that’s the point.
Alexandr Ivanov’s Transfiguration vividly captures the scene as it is told in the Gospels. What I am most drawn to is the cloud and light that obscures Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. The three disciples seem to be overwhelmed by the scene, which feels like the natural human response to such an event.
Too often I encounter retellings or artistic representations of the story that depict it with too much clarity. At its heart, the Transfiguration is an event that overwhelms our senses, complicates our timelines, and frustrates the surety with which we often navigate our relationship to God. The Transfiguration reveals the reality that, ultimately, God is beyond all knowing.
When I first began attending an Episcopal church many years ago, I was caught up in the mystery of it all. The fire, the water, the bread, and the wine were all simple objects which, when taken together and given deep meaning, overwhelmed me. As I began to attend more regularly, learn more about the ancient liturgy of the church, and get more involved, the mystery began to wane. It felt like the cloud of mystery which had captured my imagination was evaporating. This all changed when I attended my first Easter Vigil. As I stood in the Church parking lot in the darkness just before sunrise, staring into the glowing new fire of Easter, and hearing the ancient words of the Exsultet, I relinquished my need to understand it all and leaned into the mystery of Christ’s love for us.
I have heard of parents who refuse to allow their children to participate in Holy Eucharist because “they don’t understand it yet.” While I have learned to defer to parents, I do try to persuade them otherwise. This rationale is frustrating, because it flattens faith into understandable facts. While seeking to understand more deeply our relationship to God and one another is not itself a bad thing, using it as a litmus test for the Sacraments is.
In reality, the deeper we go in God, the more we tend to realize how little we know of God. The sacraments are touchstones that help us to make our way through the cloud of faith. They connect us to one another, connect us to God, propel us forward in mission, and restore us when we are fallen. That doesn’t happen because we understand how it all works. It happens because God is just that good.
Among other things, the Transfiguration can help us to see to see the bigness of God and persuade us to get out of our heads. It can be a pathway into a deeper relationship with God that opens us up to God’s mystery. It can reveal that sometimes it is okay when life doesn’t make sense. Fire, water, bread, and wine are ours to share anyway.
A Prayer for Today
O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Do you tend to want to embrace sacred mystery, seek logical answers, or both?
The Rev. Virginia W. Nagel says
My family have been Episcopalian for many years…back to at least the 1850s and maybe beyond. So it wasn’t an impact full mystery that drew me to the church. Simply, it was a comfy, familiar place, home. It was when I was preparing for Confirmation and First Communion that the mystery hit me. The familiarity was suddenly both clearly understandable and cloaked in a sort of luminous glory, and I could only penetrate that glory a little ways, but always I knew I could reach in further than I could understand. I knew somehow that I needed to keep reaching further and further and that somehow I was safe and loved while being a mixture of scared and awed and more than a little afraid. Somehow I received the courage to walk up to the altar rail where the bishop sat. Somehow I felt I would be missed if I didn’t go to receive the bread and wine. Somehow, I came back to the pew knowing I was a different person but was still me. And that was probably as much theology as an eight-year-old could be expected to absorb in the year of Our Lord 1948.