Parish Eucharist 23rd February 2020
In the charming city of Nancy, in Lorraine, and in the the most perfect Eighteenth Century Square, the Place Stanislaus, is a Fine Art Museum. One of its most famous pictures is Ruben’s huge painting of the Transfiguration.
Huge though it is, it’s not at all obvious, and easily missed on a preliminary reconnoitre. This is because Rubens does not put the story of the Transfiguration itself, which we heard just now, in the foreground. Instead, we are standing at the bottom of the mountain witnessing most closely the unsuccessful attempts of the disciples to expel a particularly recalcitrant spirit from a unfortunate boy. Looking harder, in the background, at the top of the painting, you can see the familiar brilliance of Jesus (although not very bright in the painting- perhaps that is just age) with Moses and Elijah and Peter, James and John, alarmed and amazed at their feet.
Rubens’ version is scripturally correct; each of the synoptic Gospels has Matthew’s telling of the story with it sandwiched between the story of the disciples’ fruitless attempts to cure the epileptic boy. That narrative and the Transfiguration itself, in different ways tell us who Jesus is and they do so through some ambiguities and apparent contradictions which superficially, at least, might puzzle and tease us.
The most obvious oddity, is that this dramatic demonstration of Jesus’ status in both his equality and superiority over the greatest prophets of the Jewish tradition, and affinity to God himself expressed in physical terms of brilliance and light, is a private affair and one which Jesus himself instructs his chosen few witnesses to keep secret. There is no idea here of putting the light of the Gospel on a lampstand; it’s to be hidden in the memories of a select few, to be revealed after the resurrection in, for example Peter’s direct reminiscence in his letter. There are, in this, parallels with the crucifixion and resurrection, very public darkness and apparent failure, turned around by the brilliant but intimate resurrection stories.
The next ambiguity concerns the distinction between words and action. In the Transfiguration story we see Jesus’ association with the greatest prophets; we see the descent of the divine cloud; the reflected brightness of God and we hear the heavenly voice, and all these affirm Jesus’ status and his authority. “Listen to him” God commands.
Jesus does, indeed have a much to say, but I think we learn about him and his Gospel, more from what he does: it’s the private and personal core of most the miracle stories; it’s with whom he associates and how he does so; it’s his acting out and reinterpreting of prophetic expectations; and finally, most importantly, it’s his passion death and resurrection that culminate this Gospel of active involvement with the world. These all, I suggest, announce the Gospel louder and clearer than his formal teaching. God’s ethereal injunction: “Listen to him” is more it seems, “Look at him, understand what he is doing, and what his life and his actions mean for you.”
There is a lot of talking in the Gospel, and I can’t just dismiss the Sermon on the Mount, and the parables. Despite their own ambiguities and obscurities, despite (and perhaps through) their, no doubt, intended allegory and allusion, his words do explain and compliment the programme of action. The last of semi- ambiguities of the Transfiguration story brings this out; impliedly Jesus is compared with Elijah and Moses, the greatest of the prophets, but very different ones. Elijah was the holy man who battled against the profanity of his age; an ascetic who recognises God and brings him into the world, not so much with words (although he had many sharp ones for Ahab and Jezebel) as action, and stupendous pyrotechnics. Moses performed some miracles; although the most impressive and important miracle of all, the dividing of the Red Sea was not seen as his work, but he was certainly there in a leading role. But Moses is more remembered as bringing God’s word to his chosen people; although not an eloquent speaker himself, he was responsible for the Law, God’s commandments in their basic simplicity and their detailed application as the principles are applied to complex and shifting human situations and conditions. Jesus’ life and teaching share the practical engagement of Elijah and the more verbal, principled based influence of Moses.
So there are, I think these three strands of ambiguity, ambivalence, and even contradiction at play in the wider Transfiguration story I mean both the bright triumph at the top of the mountain, in Rubens’ background, and the darker foreground of failure at the foot of the mountain; we see Jesus placed in and culminating the prophetic tradition; we have brilliance and clarity which must be kept private and secret and we have words contrasted with action: God says “Listen to Jesus”, but it’s not through words that we come to know him and why he matters to us.
One of the strongest themes running though the Gospels is resolving the question who this man Jesus was. In one way or another almost everyone who meets Jesus, from the shepherds and wise men who meet him as a baby to the soldier on crucifixion guard duty, all want to know and discover the truth (or part of it) about this man. The Gospels might well be called the Revelations (if the title hadn’t been taken already).
A major turning point in this process of revelation comes just before the Transfiguration story when at Caesarea Philippi, Peter acknowledges that Jesus is not, as some thought, Elijah, or John the Baptist or one of the prophets, but the Messiah, the one they had been waiting for. The Transfiguration follows on from that affirmation, still a private matter but given unequivocal and dramatic proof. It also, I think, begins to tell us what that means. It would, I suppose have been of little use to the disciples, and the wider community following Jesus, to have had a divine intervention, the dazzling clothes and heavenly voice, because that intervention would not have explained what Jesus’ life and work were about. Paradoxically, it would actually have been a distraction. Rubens is right that message for us is in the attempts to do God’s work going on at the bottom of the mountain, viewed with the knowledge we now have of what is going on up the mountain.
What the story of the Transfiguration is telling us, I think, is the full implication of “Listening to Jesus”- listening, looking, and trying to emulate his life. The full realisation of who he was, and how he matters to us, will come, like the resurrection, in brilliant, even blinding glory, but not (for most of us, at least) publicly or suddenly, nor in descending clouds or heavenly voices. Instead, it will come through an understanding and emulation of Jesus’ life and actions, inevitably for those of us who are not saints, only a partial understanding and feeble emulation, but deeply satisfying none the less.
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