The Transfiguration (Sr. Abraham, Ethiopian community in Jerusalem, 1990)
The sun woke me this morning loud
and clear, saying, “Hey! I’ve been
trying to wake you up for fifteen
minutes. Don’t be so rude, you are
only the second poet I’ve ever chosen
to speak to personally
aren’t you more attentive? If I could
burn you through the window I would
to wake you up. I can’t hang around
here all day.”
–– Frank O’Hara, “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island”[i]
O’Hara’s poem came to me last week in a Paris Review email. It seemed the perfect epigraph for a post on the Transfiguration. The Light of the world wants to talk, to let the chosen seer know what’s what. But attentiveness doesn’t come naturally to humans, not even to poets and mystics. We all need to be shaken awake. Some scorching may be involved. But there is a definite sense of urgency. “I can’t hang around here all day.”
When Peter, James and John saw Jesus shine with the light of heaven on the summit of Mount Tabor, they were offered something which not everyone is ready to see. They weren’t there as passive spectators. Something would be expected of them. They too were made to shine.
“All will become light, all will be penetrated by uncreated light. The bodies of the saints will become like the glorious body of the Lord, as it appeared to the apostles on the day of the Transfiguration. God will be all in all, and divine grace, the light of the Holy Trinity, will shine forth in the multitude of human hypostases, in all those who have acquired it; they will become like new suns in the Kingdom of the Father, resembling the Son, transfigured by the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Light.”[ii]
The Transfiguration of Jesus is a supernatural story unlike any other in the gospels. Walking on water may defy our notions of natural law, and the Resurrection appearances may contradict common assumptions about death, but those gospel passages still retain a sense of historical narrative. They are story elements, however unusual, that unfold in space and time. What happened to Jesus and three disciples on Mount Tabor, on the other hand, seems to stand outside of history, like a vision or dream.
The Transfiguration is a mystery I find myself returning to every year in my blog. This is my fourth post on the topic since 2015. In “The Woven Light,” I explored the nature of light as both metaphor and spiritual reality, citing the visual arts as well as the 14th century theologian, Gregory Palamas, who taught that the “uncreated light” seen on the mountain “was not an ephemeral experience of the senses but the unmediated presence of God. Although this holy light could be seen through physical eyes, it was not a natural light. It was, in fact, the uncreated energies of the Godhead, the splendor of the age to come, a light shining from God’s future into the present moment.”
In “The Light We May Not See: Thoughts on Dust and Transfiguration,” I wrote that “the Transfiguration isn’t just a story about Jesus. It is a sign of the light desiring to break forth from within each of us. Contemplation isn’t a spectator sport. It demands participation.”
And in “Every Common Bush Afire with God,” I used my own ascent of a mountain to describe a world where the divine wants to make an appearance wherever we are prepared to look with believing eyes.
One of the most beautiful attributes of the Transfiguration is its incomprehensibility. The source of its “invisible fire”[iii] lies outside the sensory world. It can never be domesticated by the curse of an overtly apparent meaning. It refuses containment by explanatory reductions. It continues to roam wild in our religious imaginations.
I once asked a storyteller about the meaning of an exceptionally cryptic tale he had shared at a gathering of Christian creatives. “I don’t know what it means,” he said. “That’s why I keep telling it, to see if I might one day understand it.” The Transfiguration is that kind of story––that’s why I can’t stop wondering about it. And, as the gospel for tomorrow’s Last Sunday of Epiphany, here it comes again. What does it want to say this time?
When I began to work on this post, I thought I might explore the mystical theology of the Eastern Church, which has always been so fervently eloquent on the subject, insisting that “the divine light is not an allegorical or abstract thing; it is given in mystical experience.”[iv] And that experience changes everyone it touches.
Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), for example, taught that those who participate in the divine energy take on some of its resplendence. “The pure in heart see God . . . who, being Light, dwells in them and reveals Himself to those who love Him.”[v] And Vladimir Lossky (1953-1958) wrote that the light seen on Mount Tabor, like O’Hara’s talkative sun, still has a word for us today:
“We live in a world of suffering, a world broken and disintegrated, in which Christ’s Transfiguration uncovers reality and reveals to our skeptical minds a new humanity that has either entered into the light of the Risen One or is still called to do so.”[vi]
But before I got very far into the nature and consequences of the Transfiguration, I happened to see the cover of this week’s Time magazine, which shattered the serenity of my reflections.
The diabolic flash of nuclear destruction has been the negative image of the dazzling Christ of Mount Tabor ever since the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on the Feast of the Transfiguration in 1945. Such a bizarre pairing perfectly manifests the stark alternatives set before us by the biblical God:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today
that I have set before you life and death,
blessings and curses.
In his novel Underworld, Don DeLillo chillingly mixes and confuses the primal images of divine and diabolical light when a nun, lifted out of herself into the informational totality of the Internet, has a visionary experience on a website devoted to the H-bomb:
She sees the flash, the thermal pulse . . . . She stands in the flash and feels the power. She sees the spray plume. She sees the fireball climbing, the superheated sphere of burning gas that can blind a person with its beauty, its dripping christblood colors, solar golds and red. She sees the shock wave and hears the high winds and feels the power of false faith, the faith of paranoia, then the mushroom cloud spreads around her, the pulverized mass of radioactive debris, eight miles high, ten miles, twenty, with skirted stem and platinum cap.
The jewels roll out of her eyes and she sees God. . .
No, wait, sorry. It is a Soviet bomb she sees . . . .[viii]
The question of which light we belong to, which light we surrender to, is in no way theoretical. As the seething id in the Oval Office begins to pry open the Pandora’s Box of nuclear annihilation, the choice is now set before us with an urgency to which we are only beginning to awaken.
If I could
burn you through the window I would
to wake you up.
Resist! But do not fear. The light revealed on Mount Tabor penetrates even the shadows of hell. As Lossky reminds us in his writings about the Transfiguration, “we need to put on a robe of light, the apparel of those who live without fear, since they have already conquered death and the multiple anxieties associated with it.”[ix]
This is not a drill.
The Transfiguration (Armenian Gospel, 1038)
The Woven Light
The Light We May Not See: Thoughts on Dust and Transfiguration
“Every common bush afire with God”
[i] Paris Review, Issue 45, Winter 1968.
[ii] Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 235.
[iii] The term comes from St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), who maintained that the divine light, while invisible to ordinary sense, was nevertheless a real thing which showed itself in mystical experience. Quoted in Lossky, p. 221.
[iv] Ibid., 220.
[v] Gregory Palamas, “Homily on the Presentation of the Holy Virgin in the Temple,” q. in Lossky, p. 224.
[vi] Lossky, p. 151.
[vii] Deuteronomy 30:19.
[viii] Don DeLillo, Underworld (New York: Scribner, 1997), 825-6.
[ix] Lossky, p. 244.