The Glory of the Transfigured Crucified

As far back as our liturgical sources take us, we find the Church beginning Lent with the Gospels of Jesus’ Temptation in the desert and his Transfiguration on the mountain.

Hence Christians’ Lenten experience replicates the God-guided experience of the people of Israel: their forty days of journeying in the desert, which tested their fidelity, and the community-founding theophany at Sinai which endowed them with the Torah of grace.

But for Christians the pillar of fire and the life-sustaining manna, the covenant and the promise are all recapitulated in Christ. The spiritual élan of Israel’s faith, the intimations and pre-figurations of its inspired Scriptures, find their fulfillment in the Person of Jesus the Christ.

Theophany, in its awesome grace and transforming truth, is revealed to be Christophany. Hence the heart of Christian worship is ever to proclaim, with the seer of the Apocalypse, the joyful doxology: “To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.” (Rev 1:5-6)

One of the inestimable gifts that God has provided his Church is that of the Canon of Holy Scripture: both Testaments bearing conjoint witness to Christ who, in the words of the Church’s pioneering theologian, “is the end of the law” (Rom 10:4) – not its abolishment, but its goal and fulfillment.

What continues to evoke wonder and gratitude is how harmonious is the New Testament’s witness to the novum of Jesus Christ and the salvation he brings – the salvation he is. Not by way of facile “harmonization,” but by the disclosure of a “depth grammar,” a foundational “logic,” if you will, that is pervasively a “Christo-logic.”

Much has been accomplished in New Testament scholarship by stressing the distinctive perspectives of the individual New Testament authors. But there is also a danger of separating them into discrete units, a neglect of the governing canonical perspective. And that perspective, that hermeneutic, as Benedict XVI never tired of insisting, is Christological.

The Gospel of the Second Sunday of Lent is Saint Luke’s telling of the Transfiguration of Jesus. The account of Jesus transfigured appears in each of the Synoptic Gospels, and in each it assumes a crucial role. It follows upon Peter’s confession of Jesus’ identity and marks the more insistent foretelling of his betrayal, his suffering, and his death.

In each Synoptic there is a clear parallel between the narrative of the Transfiguration and that of the Lord’s Baptism. In each epiphany, the voice of the Father is heard from heaven heralding: “This is my beloved Son.” The uniqueness of relation between Father and Son announced at the Baptism is repeated and reinforced at the Transfiguration. Reinforced, because the disciples on the Mount and those to whom they will announce the Good News are exhorted: “Listen to him!” Jesus’ unique authority is proclaimed.

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Three features of Luke’s narrative, however, are distinctive and worth considering. First, Luke situates the Transfiguration in the context of the prayer of Jesus. He went up to the mountain to pray, and while praying, “his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.” Though the other Synoptics refer elsewhere to Jesus’ prayer, Luke places it in singular relief.

Second, Luke alone recounts the subject of the exchange among Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. They “spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” The suffering and death of Jesus is thereby inserted into the very heart of the Christophany – Transfiguration and Golgotha united in synoptic vision.

Third, Luke alone of the Synoptics underscores the element of “Glory” that pervades the event. Moses and Elijah appeared “in glory” (doxa); and the disciples, fully awake, saw “Jesus’ glory.” The clear implication is that the glory of Jesus radiates to enfold Moses and Elijah. They are bathed in his glory. Jesus is the sun whose light illumines all those who “dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,” as Zechariah had prophesied. (Lk 1:79)

But the glory of Jesus is not foreign to suffering. Indeed, it shines out precisely in the passion that Jesus willingly undertakes for the world’s salvation. It is above all in his “exodus” that his glory is revealed. His crucifixion becomes his coronation.

Pondering Luke’s recounting of Jesus’ transfiguration, one wonders whether we have paid sufficient heed to its intimate connection with another of his Gospel’s most distinctive depictions: the account of the appearance of the risen Lord to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus chides the down-struck disciples: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Lk 24:26) The glory manifested in anticipation at the Transfiguration is now fully realized in the Resurrection, the transformation of suffering and death itself.

And to weave yet more tightly the bond between the two scenes, the risen Christ, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets” interprets to the disciples, of yesterday and today, “the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures” (24:27) The risen Lord testifies that the Logos inspiring and sustaining the whole of Israel’s journey of faith finds eschatological embodiment in himself and his continuing presence in the breaking of Eucharistic bread.

The Glory of the crucified and transfigured Christ enkindled the Christic imagination of the priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, both in heights of exaltation and in depths of desolation. Hopkins glimpsed traces of Christ in all creation – in its grandeur and pied beauty, as well as in its searing affliction and silent tears.

But his Christ-figured vision finds particularly charged expression in the great sonnet, “The Windhover,” explicitly dedicated “To Christ our Lord.” The poem culminates in a riot of images of suffering undergone and transfigured – in Christ the Lord, but also, through Christ, in all those who enter into his Glory:

          No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plow down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

 

*Image: The Transfiguration by Duccio (di Buoninsegna), 1307 [National Gallery, London]

Fr. Robert P. Imbelli

Fr. Robert P. Imbelli

Robert Imbelli, a Priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College. He is the author of Christic Imagination: How Christ Transforms Us is available from Now You Know Media.



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