By Leander S. Harding
The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ is the title of a small book by the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramey. The book is a reflection on the use of the word “glory” in the Bible, which appears over 400 times in Scripture, either as kabod (the Hebrew word) or doxa (the Greek). I reread this book during Epiphany every year knowing that the Last Sunday in Epiphany the Gospel will be the transfiguration of Christ before Peter, James, and John.
The Transfiguration evokes the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai. The luminous cloud is there, and Moses is there, and the voice of the Lord is there: “This is my beloved Son, hear him.” Jesus is transfigured before them, and Mark tells us that “his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow, such as no fuller on earth can white them,” and they beheld the glory of the Lord. The word glory has the sense of radiant light and the sense of weight and heft. Both in the Hebrew and the Greek the word also means reputation. To behold the glory of the King is to have a right appraisal of his dignity, and to have a right opinion about God is to be “orthodox.” The orthodox are able to behold the glory because they have a right understanding, and they have a right understanding because they behold the glory.
Also present on the mountain is the sense of danger and dread that the experience of glory provokes. St. Luke tells us that the disciples were afraid when they entered the cloud. The appearance of the glory of the Lord on Sinai causes the people to draw back, and Moses has to veil his face after his encounter with the glory of the Lord in order not to terrify the people. Isaiah in the temple has a vision of the glory of the Lord and it causes him to repent. “Woe is me for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.” God explains to Moses that he cannot behold the glory of God face to face and live. God hides Moses in the cleft of the rock, and Moses beholds the glory of God as he passes by. So we sing, “Rock of Ages cleft for me / let me hide myself in Thee.”
No one has ever seen God, St. John tells us, but we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father in the face of the Son.
On the mountain they see, as far as they can tolerate, the radiant glory of God in the person of the savior. The prophets have promised that the glory of God that cast the Egyptian army into the sea, that shook Mt. Sinai, that descended on the tent of meeting and on the temple, and which Ezekiel saw leave the temple, would return, and tabernacle with them, and dwell in their midst. Peter thinks the glory has come and wants to build the dwelling place, but he won’t understand until after the crucifixion and the resurrection what is required for the glory of God to be revealed and take up residence among us. The glory of the transfiguration is the glory of the cross and the glory of the resurrection to those who perceive with the eyes of faith. The Transfiguration divides each of the synoptic gospels in two. There is the ministry before the climb up the mountain of transfiguration and there is the descent from the mountain of transfiguration and the journey to the hill of Calvary. These two promontories, transfiguration and Calvary, point to each other and interpret each other.
Here we come to a contemporary aspect of the glory of the Lord that is heart-wrenching. The locus of the glory of the Lord is now his people, his Church. Let your light, the light of your baptism, which is nothing less than the glory of the Lord, let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. The glory of the Lord now tabernacles and dwells among the human race, in the temple of which St. Peter speaks, the one built of living stones and founded on that cornerstone, despised and rejected by men. The Church, certainly in our time and in most of our places is a crucified Church. It is a Church which experiences the rejection of the Lord of glory by the world and betrayal of the Lord of glory from within the flock of Christ.
The disunity of the Church is a particular and specific betrayal of the glory of the Lord. In the high priestly prayer of John 17, Jesus prays for the unity of the Church so that the world may perceive the glory which he shares with his Father. Ramsey is blunt in his exposition of the prayer. No unity, ichabod, the glory departs.
Can we see the crucifixion of the Lord of glory in the figure of his Church in the light of the Transfiguration? Can we see his crucifixion by a hostile world and by an unfaithful Church as his Passion where nevertheless his glory, his unconquerable radiance, his vindication of his own reputation, his dread power to accomplish his purposes, is, nevertheless, being revealed?