IN ATHENS there is a Parish Church dedicated to the Transfiguration, which gives its name to the populous suburb in which it stands. It was a source of some amusement to me to be able to catch a blue and cream city bus to Aghia Metamorphosis and to purchase a ticket for that destination! The Roman poet Ovid wrote a collection of poems entitled Metamorphoses describing the various legends about gods who for one reason or another changed their form and appearance so as to be able to be part of the human world. Ovid was only reflecting the folk-religion of the time. As Robin Lane Fox points out, in his book Pagans and Christians, close encounters with gods were not regarded as all that unusual. Barnabas and Paul were easily mistaken for Zeus and Hermes at Lystra.

It can be helpful in this time before Christmas to look at the significance of Christ’s birth by pondering the Transfiguration. However the Transfiguration was no conventional metamorphosis, in the way that gods might decide to disguise themselves and go under cover now and then. The Transfiguration operates not as a concealment but as a revelation. To understand this we need to see the Transfiguration within its setting in the Gospel narrative. It takes place immediately before our Lord and the disciples begin their journey to Jerusalem, together with the warnings that the Son of Man must suffer, and the command to take up the cross and follow. It had been preceded by our Lord’s challenge to his disciples. Who do people, who do you, say that I am?” “You are the Christ”, St. Peter replied, again, one suspects, not realising what he was saying.

Being the Christ was not to be the glory trip of popular imagination. It meant humiliation, suffering and the cross. It was Peter opening his big mouth like this that was to set Jesus out on his journey to Jerusalem and his Passion.

This then is the context of the Metamorphosis, the revelation of his glory, the voice from heaven proclaiming, “This is my beloved Son”. Christ Jesus is truly in the morphe, the figure of God, but this was not a position of privilege as these things are generally understood in terms of the trappings of wealth and power. His exchange of the figuration of God for the figuration of a (suffering) servant does not eclipse his glory. Quite the opposite it enhances it to the power of infinity. The glory of the Son consists in his total obedience – even to the death of the Cross. This is the moment in which the Son of Man is truly glorified and given the Name above every name. “Mild he lays his glory by”. No he did not. For once, Wesley got it wrong! His glory is seen in his suffering, his great humility, his great service of infinite love. Here he reflects the very Heart and glory of God. This is what it is to be God, not anything else, and the vision of the Transfiguration lifts just a corner of the curtain on the hitherto hidden mystery.

Hugh Bates is a retired priest in the Diocese of York