Peter Anthony explores the mystery of the Transfiguration
If you were present on the mountain with Peter, James and John, would you have been able to see the Transfiguration? What I mean is this. Could just anyone see it? If you had a camera with you, for example, would you have been able to take a picture of it? Or to put it another way, if Squirrel Nutkin just happened to poke his head around a tree at the right time, would he have been able to see it? Could a creature with no soul, or reason see the Glory of God being displayed in Jesus Christ? Or would he just have seen three ordinary looking blokes a bit confused standing in front of another ordinary looking bloke. It’s a puzzling question isn’t it. If we look at what was written about this question in the earliest Christian centuries, we discover something rather interesting. Broadly speaking if you asked a Greek speaker, writing in the East, whether we could all see the Transfiguration, he would probably answer no. For Greek speaking theologians, not just anyone could see the Transfiguration. For them, it shows how difficult it is for humans to see God’s glory. Origen, for example, says the disciples going up the mountain represent the way in which only the most spiritually experienced and holy can see God: people who have spent their whole lives seeking Wisdom, and disciplining their souls. Origen argues the fact that there were only three disciples rather than twelve chosen to witness this event shows how difficult it is to see God, and how spiritually advanced you need to be to witness his presence. Greek writers tended to emphasize how the Transfiguration is a story about the transformation not of Jesus, but of the disciples’ vision — how they were enabled to see something which ordinarily they would not be able to see or cope with. A seeing with the soul and the mind rather than the eyes. In fact many Greek patristic commentators go so far as to say if someone happened to be on the mountain and saw the Transfiguration by accident, or without being prepared for it, they would probably go blind or mad or both! Contrast that with the opinion of the cooler, more restrained Western Latin mind. You discover in Latin patristic comment almost the opposite. Roman theologians tended to say, “Yes, of course anyone could see the Transfiguration”. For Latin commentators, there was something fundamentally democratic, if you like, about the disciples’ experience. It shows that all of us, each and every Christian by virtue of our baptism is given by God the grace of being able to know him and see him. Ambrose, for example, insists the disciples see Moses and Elijah in “bodily” glory, as though anyone could see it. Indeed for him, the three disciples represent the whole human race, rather than a smaller group of “elite” mystics as Origen argued. For Latin writers it was important to emphasise it less as a seeing in the mind, and more a physical thing, something Squirrel Nutkin may well have been able to witness, or which you might have been able to photograph. The Transfiguration for the Latin mind shows the vision of God is not an esoteric thing just for the very holy, but something God offers to all by virtue of the incarnation. Through the whole of Christian history the Transfiguration has been seen as something that tells us a lot about what it means to be in God’s presence. It describes being with God in terms of seeing him. In that, there is something going on here that tells us what heaven will be like. Whatever else we experience in heaven, it will be a blissful and constant seeing of God in which we are somehow made able to witness his Glory — something which it is difficult for us to see in this mortal life, but which in heaven will be our constant joy and delight. Maybe part of why this is so important for the ancient mind is actually rooted in how people understood sight. In the ancient world, human vision was thought to be almost like a form of touching. Most ancient theories of how we see imagined there were invisible, but nonetheless physical rays going out of the eye, or into the eye, connecting the viewer in an almost tactile way with the thing viewed. Language associated with vision was often very tactile too. Seeing something was like touching, embracing, exploring, or even tasting it. To look at something was to grasp and hold it in your mind. One of the things it is important to do when we read Luke’s version of the Transfiguration is to notice just how often the writer adds little details that have to do with vision and seeing. Take for example, his intriguing assertion that the disciples are affected by sleepiness on the mount of Transfiguration. Most of our bad translations of the Bible simply say the disciples fell asleep and woke to the amazing vision. But the Greek of Luke’s version is more ambiguous. It says they became weighed down with drowsiness, and then suddenly come to themselves, but doesn’t actually say they fell asleep. The apostles seem to enter some sort of liminal woozy world that is neither sleep nor dream, nor wakefulness. This is frequently something you notice accompanies the experience of other visionary figures in the ancient world. In descriptions of the visionary experiences of the desert mystics sleep deprivation is often a precursor to visionary revelation, for example. So Luke adds elements that draw us into seeing the disciples who accompany him as visionaries. Heavenly vision will certainly be a characteristic of Peter’s ministry as we make our way through the Acts of the Apostles, and John will have the authorship of Revelation, the Book of Vision par excellence, ascribed to him by the Early Church. Notice also how skilfully Luke links his version of the Transfiguration to other incidents that involve vision of heaven in a way that Matthew and Mark don’t. Take for example a little phrase that, once again, gets lost in most of our translations. “Behold two men” — those are the words Luke uses to introduce Moses and Elijah. Seemingly unimportant and throw away. Yet they are words he will only use on two other occasions: at the Resurrection to describe the two angels there; and at the Ascension, describing the two angels who appear to the disciples saying Jesus will come again in the same way as he left them. Luke links his Transfiguration to other revelatory, visionary incidents in which the life of heaven is revealed to our eyes. One place we see an artist link the Transfiguration with ideas of a revelation of what heaven is like in in Ravenna. In 402, as the Roman Empire crumbled the Western Capital was transferred to Ravenna on the Adriatic coast. It was taken over by the Ostrogoths, who were Arians, and then eventually by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian who was orthodox. Throughout all this time, a most extraordinary explosion of mosaic creation took place in the city at the behest of both Arians and Catholics. One of the most beautiful and perplexing depictions of the Transfiguration is to be found there in the Church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe. It’s a bit of a trek to get to, and is now stranded outside the main city. Classe used to be the main port for Ravenna, but as the sea has receded, the church finds itself slightly abandoned in the middle of blasted swampland. The Transfiguration is depicted there as a large cross covering the sky, with the disciples presented as sheep on either side of the Lord in a lush hillside full of flowers and plants. But if you look carefully to the centre of the jewelled cross, you see a small roundel with the face of Christ. I think this depiction of the Transfiguration makes much more sense when compared with a very peculiar first century text called the Apocalypse of Peter. The Apocalypse of Peter describes the Transfiguration prompting in Peter a strange vision of heaven and hell. Despite all the weird imagery it uses, we see here clear connections being made between Peter’s experience of the Transfiguration and visionary experience of heaven. In that text, the hillside is described as lush and green, full of flowers, and there is a prediction that Christ will return with “my cross before my face,” which might be the inspiration for the strange jewelled cross standing for the transfigured Jesus. We see in this amazing mosaic an attempt to show how the Transfiguration points us forward to the life of heaven that we believe is the focus and ultimate end point of our faith. What Peter, James and John witness on the mountain top tells us something of what we hope for in eternity. And a big part of that is the series of experiences and ideas and metaphors which we describe using the idea of seeing God. One thing Luke is trying to tell us in his Transfiguration Sant’Apollinare Ravenna account is that whenever and however we end up seeing God either in their life or in the next, it is never just a matter of a distant witnessing of him. Seeing God prompts us to embrace him, to know him, to touch him, to be overwhelmed by him. Seeing God does not just involve the use of our eyes, but our mind, our soul, our whole being. We can see God because God made us able to know and see him. And yet at the same time, that vision wonderfully overwhelms us, inebriates us, and is more than we could ever hope for. The Transfiguration reveals the vision of God is strangely both possible and impossible at the same time; forbidden, and dangerous — and yet intimate and wonderful; awesome, and terrible; yet loving and personal. It points to a wonderful paradox at the heart of our experience of God. He is more than we could ever imagine, or desire, or see, and yet loves us and saves us as our friend and brother.
Fr Peter Anthony SSC has been appointed the Vicar of All Saints, Margaret Street. This article originally appeared in the All Saints Margaret Street Parish Paper.