An Image of the Heavenly Light

In his book The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ Archbishop Michael Ramsey explored the centrality of the theology of glory for an understanding of Christ and the theology of redemption. He reminded his readers that the Hebrew word kabod, translated as “glory”, means the “weight” of a thing or person, and hence that person’s very character and being. So to say that we see “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Corinthians 4.6), or that in the Word made flesh who lived among us, we saw “the glory as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth”, is to say that in Christ we see and know no less than the very being of God.

In the story of the Transfiguration the Divine Glory is central. The symbol of the Divine glory is the cloud, the shekinah of the Divine presence, which both conceals and reveals. Clouds both shine with radiance from the sun, and also conceal. The cloud leads the Israelites in their Exodus pilgrimage, fills the tabernacle and the temple, and descends upon Mount Sinai. Moses goes up the mountain and enters the cloud where God was (Exodus 20:21). The cloud is of “thick darkness”, the word used in the Septuagint is gnophos, a darkness which you can almost taste and touch, in which senses are alert and presence is known intensely even in seeming absence. In R.S. Thomas’s phrase, “the absence is as a presence”. In the fourteenth-century English treatise on mystical prayer, The Cloud of Unknowing, the intellectual darkness of the human mind and spirit and the transcendent mystery of God, are held together with the desire of longing love to know the Creator.

On the mountain, the place of transfiguration, as on the mountain where Moses had encountered God in the cloud, and Elijah in the “still, small sound” (“The sound of thin silence”), Peter and James and John see the morphe, the form of Jesus change so that the dazzling light of the Divine Presence is seen and known. And the cloud, the other symbol of Divine glory, “overshadows” or “envelops” them. They are “overshadowed” as Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, the power of the Most High, and conceived the Son of God. The heavenly voice from the cloud, as at Jesus’s baptism proclaims his glory “This is my Son, the Chosen One”. The disciples are to “listen to him” and the obedient listening to and following Christ, is itself a process of transfiguration. We too are to be changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.

The Transfiguration is a revelation of the Divine glory, and that glory we as Christians share. Our destiny is, as the writer of II Peter puts it, “to be partakers of the Divine Nature.” We are already partakers of that divine life by virtue of our baptism, and through the Christ who feeds us with his life in the eucharist. In the East the eucharistic change is described as metamorphosis – Transfiguration. We receive communion that “we may ever more dwell in Him and He in us.

In the fourteenth century there was a fierce dispute about the Divine light of the Transfiguration, between a Western monk from Calabria, Barlaam, and the Greek archbishop of Thessalonica, Gregory Palamas. Was that light “created” or “uncreated”? It seems at first sight a recondite debate, like angels dancing on pins, but at its heart was a deep Christian concern. Do we really know in Jesus God, Very God of Very God, his “presence and his very self and essence all-divine”, or are we dealing merely with metaphor, symbol and ways of talking? “On the day of Transfiguration”, wrote Palamas, “the Kingdom came down in power according to the word of the Lord”. A real Presence in the Eucharist, a real sacramental birth in baptism, a supernatural life in the Church, a transfiguring power in prayer, these are the outworkings of faith in the reality of the Incarnation, all these are consequences of taking the reality of the Incarnation seriously. Medieval nominalism, cultural relativism, the reduction of theological terms to mere ways of speaking, all leave us with husks and shells and not the heart of the matter. The God who is beyond all words, yet comes to us as the Word made flesh, in whom we behold his glory. The hiddenness of God is a dazzling darkness, a light in which we are to see light. So the great Byzantine mystic, St Symeon the New Theologian, sang at the close of the first millennium:

But Oh, what intoxication of light.
Oh, what movements of fire.
Oh, what swirlings of flame in me, miserable one that I am, coming from you and your glory.
The glory I know it and say it is your Holy Spirit…

I fall down in adoration before you.
I thank you that you have made me worthy to know, however little it may be, the power of your Divinity….
You granted me to see the light of your countenance that is unbearable to all.”

Geoffrey Rowell is Bishop of Basingstoke