We all, I think, know what it's like to see or hear a familiar person in an unfamiliar context. For most children, seeing a parent at work for the first time, or in some other public context, can be deeply unsettling – all of a sudden, that parent belongs to other people as well. Seeing a friend perform, if it's done well, and with integrity and conviction, can have a similar effect, and of course, for a parent, seeing a child as an autonomous adult and grasping that development fully for the first time, can be both deeply moving and a little disturbing. All these realisations compel us to see people in a new way, to recognise that our own relationships with them are not what defines them, and to renegotiate – even if in subtle ways – how we interact with them henceforward. We enter into a process of transformation.
These are challenges on the scale of ordinary human interactions. I think what we're meant to see, in Matthew's account of the Transfiguration of Jesus, is a cosmically magnified version of that sort of displacement. Until this point in the earthly ministry of Jesus, the disciples have been following him around, occasionally managing to give the right answer to questions like “Who do you say that I am?”, but for the most part demonstrating just how constrained their understanding really is. Their master heals people, performs signs and wonders, and announces the kingdom of God, but I think they still do see him very much as theirs – their teacher, their Lord, the one of whom they have a piece. The three whom he takes up the mountain are suddenly made to see him in a different context: there he stands, with Moses and Elijah – the Law and the Prophets – and a voice which must be that of God says “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!” This, above even those they have been taught to revere. Their vision is transformed, so that they see him radiant with the glory of God, the light which is always there, but which human eyes cannot ordinarily see – the light which represents, in the words of the Orthodox theologian Gregory Palamas, the “energies of God”. Seeing Jesus in such a way, in such a context, shows them that he cannot possibly be defined by their relationship with him, contained within the bounds of their perception or understanding. And it knocks them sideways. The usual Orthodox icon of the Transfiguration depicts this wonderfully – Peter, James, and John are shown sprawling on the mountainside, their feet whisked out from under them. At least one generally seems to be on the verge of tumbling down the slope, and only Peter reaches upward with his absurd suggestion about building booths, searching desperately for some sort of conceptual structure which will enable them to hold on to the vision, to organise what they have been shown into a recognisable pattern.
But there's no way they can do that, not yet, anyway. This moment, this vision, recapitulates the Baptism of Jesus, the first public revelation of his divine identity; it summarises all the signs and wonders which the disciples have seen him do; but it also looks forward. It prefigures his resurrection from the death which none of them are ready to contemplate, and his ascension to glory thereafter, and it prepares them to recognise those moments when they arrive. But the three are not ready yet – that brief flash of vision is all they're granted for the time being, and Jesus tells them to keep even that to themselves until the right moment comes to reveal it. If you're the sort of person who tries to imagine the lives of people in scripture, you can't help wondering how this moment changed their relationship with Jesus: whether it remained at the forefront of their minds, or slid into that place where half-remembered dreams take up residence, while they returned to the pattern of their lives as followers and companions. Were they transformed, there, on the mountainside, or simply made ready for transformation when the fullness of the Incarnation was made clear?
Of course mountaintops are wonderful places for revelation, because in a purely physical way they make so much more of the world visible than a ground-level perspective allows, but moments of transfiguration, as one of my favourite Anglican theologians, Kenneth Leech, puts it, “can and [do] occur ‘just around the corner’... in the midst of perplexity, imperfection, and disastrous misunderstanding.” They can happen when our feet are knocked out from under us and we feel as though we're ready to tumble down a steep slope, when this abrupt shift in perspective allows us to see things from altogether new and disturbing angles. And, as with the disciples, it will probably take us time to work out what transfiguration means.
Because transfiguration, ultimately, is something that happens to us, in Christ The word that's used in Greek is metamorphosis, which is more than a change of shape, or of visible form, but a process of growing from one state of being to another. Orthodox theologians also talk about theosis, the process by which we grow into the life of God. And for us, seeing the Incarnation from the other side of the empty tomb, the whole of our Christian life can guide us into this growth. We may occasionally climb mountains in search of God, but we can also see the face of Christ transfigured in community, and in the people we meet on the street. Our life of worship, when we pause to think about it, is shot through with transfiguration, with metamorphosis. Water becomes the sepulchre through which baptism draws us into resurrected life. We take ordinary things, bread and wine, and offer them to God, and they become, by God’s love and grace, utterly extraordinary. “This is my body, given for you... this is my blood, shed for you...”
As the Body of Christ, we are witnesses that sacramental transformation can come into the world, has come into the world, into the lives of individuals and of communities. We remember the transfigurations which God has shown us, in scripture, in history, in nature, and in our own experience, and we hold ourselves in readiness to be transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ. And finally, we are called to proclaim, in word but most especially in deed, the love that makes such transformation possible, and to reflect the light of Christ clearly and faithfully to the world God loves.
The current Humphrys Chaplain to the University of Trinity College and the Saint George campus of the
The Reverend Andrea Budgey
University of Toronto is the Rev'd Andrea Budgey.
Ms. Budgey completed both an M Mus (performance: oboe) and an MA (medieval studies: Celtic languages and literature, music) at the University of Toronto, and in 2006 obtained her M Div from Trinity College. She was ordained priest in January of 2008, and was Assistant Curate at Saint Simon-the-Apostle in Toronto until the end of that year, continuing to serve as honorary assistant, and later as interim priest-in-charge; she is currently an honorary assistant at the parish of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, close to campus. She has been involved in community outreach and advocacy for a number of years, and retains a strong interest in ecumenical and interfaith work; she welcomes constructive engagement with both seekers and skeptics. She is also advisory board chair of the University of Toronto unit of the Student Christian Movement. As a member and co-founder of the SINE NOMINE Ensemble for Medieval Music, she sings and plays harp, fiddle, recorder, and percussion, and has directed a number of medieval liturgical reconstructions. She has been an instructor (in Celtic Studies, music, and English) for Saint Michael's College, the School of Continuing Studies, the Faculty of Music, and the Scarborough campus of the University of Toronto, a freelance writer and researcher, bookseller, and calligrapher, and has also worked in radio music production and concert management.