By Jonathan Turtle
The Transfiguration of Our Lord is one of my favorite days in the Church calendar. Five years ago, when I arrived in my present cure, the very first Sunday was August 6, 2017. Since then I have taken my summer holidays during the month of July, meaning that each August when I climb back up on the horse I’m marking my anniversary in the parish and preparing to preach yet again on this wonderful passage of Scripture. On top of that it’s just plain cool. So with that introduction, I offer a few meditations on the Transfiguration.
A few weeks ago I watched Spider-Man: No Way Home with my daughters. As readers may know, the movie explores the concept of the multiverse. Characters show up at times and in places where they are not supposed to be. The Transfiguration isn’t quite like the multiverse but it does play with our understanding of spacetime. There on the mountain with our Lord are Moses and Elijah, showing up at a time and in a place where they are “not supposed to be.” Reasonable people know this is “impossible,” yet there they are.
Here’s a fun thought experiment that I first heard posited by my friend and colleague Jason Ingalls. We know that Moses and Elijah ascended Mount Sinai and Mount Carmel, respectively. We also know that they met with the Lord there on the mountaintop and conversed with him. Now, suppose that when Moses ascended Carmel, and Elijah ascended Sinai, the Lord they met and conversed with was Jesus Christ on the mount of the Transfiguration, accompanied by Peter, James, and John.
Perhaps this is fanciful thinking. Perhaps not. After all, this sort of thing wouldn’t be totally outlandish. Consider the example of our Lord, whose flesh-and-blood resurrection body has, shall we say, a different sort of relation to spacetime. For instance, when the risen Jesus shows up among the disciples despite them being in a locked room, or when his closest friends are unable to recognize him.
Consider also the fact that the Ascension means not that Jesus has gone away somewhere that is presently inaccessible to us, but rather that he has become even more present, to everyone, everywhere, at every time. As Ben Myers puts it in his little book on the Apostles’ Creed, the Ascension is not meant to make us ask, “Where has Jesus gone?”, but rather to ask along with the psalmist, “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?”
It’s also the case that ordinary Christians participate in this sort of spacetime bending, is it not? I’m fond of reminding my own parishioners that when we gather for worship something extraordinary is happening, and that if the Lord would pull back the veil of flesh from our eyes (perhaps a bit like he did for Peter, James, and John) the reality we saw would exceed our expectations and imaginations: heaven and saints and angels and thrones and creatures and so on.
Not to mention the act of remembrance that is at the heart of the Church’s worship, the Eucharist: “Do this in remembrance [anamnēsis] of me,” says Jesus. I’m no Greek scholar but I’m told that the sort of remembrance the term anamnēsis envisions is much more than a simple recollection of a past event. It is rather for that “past” event to be made present to us and us to it. To “do this in remembrance of me” is to be transported to the foot of the cross where we pray along with Mary and the beloved disciple. The crucifixion of our Lord is not a “historic event” that is locked in the past, kept alive only by our memory. It is rather what we might think of as a trans-historic event, appearing in human history at a particular time and place but by no means “stuck” there — a reality that we can know and be proximate to and indeed are as the Church gathers around Word and sacrament.
Heaven is a world outside of this world and yet overlapping and intersecting and saturating this world. It’s not unlike how Lewis imagined Narnia. In The Silver Chair Eustace explains that Narnia “has a different time from ours. …The time you spend here doesn’t take up any of our time. … However long we spend here, we shall still get back to [England] at the moment we left it.” Every time the Church gathers for worship, every time you pray at home, we leave our world and enter That Place, “too exciting and scrumptious for words,” as Jill describes it to Eustace.
Speaking of Moses and Elijah, Saint Luke tells us that they were talking with Jesus about “his departure [exodos].” This is much more than an editorial note about the subject of their conversation. It means that Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, the Old Testament, the Scriptures, speak of him. “Through their speaking together it shows that the old prophets also spoke the same things as Jesus, even if enigmatically” (Cyril of Alexandria). Not just spoke “the same things” as him but spoke of him.
Occasionally spats arise on Twitter about this. Some of my more progressive siblings are of the opinion that christological readings of the Old Testament are anachronistic at best, or worse, anti-Semitic. I think this simply cannot be true, as a matter of fact. It is after all how the first believers (Jews) came to understand their Scriptures in light of instruction from the risen Jesus himself.
On the road to Emmaus the risen Jesus, unrecognizable to his closest friends, spends the evening with them engaged in what was surely the most spectacular Bible study the world has ever known, in which, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Again shortly thereafter in the upper room our Lord spoke to them saying, “‘These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead’” (24:44-46).
“Thus it is written,” in the Scriptures (the Old Testament), “that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead.” To understand the Scriptures is to discover that all along they have been and do still speak of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. We can press further; the Scriptures are the field in which the pearl of Christ is buried. He is there, hidden in order to be found. Or as Origen was fond of putting it, the Scriptures are the flesh of Christ, and wherever they are proclaimed, he is made incarnate. Moses and Elijah are there with Jesus, and they are speaking (and do speak) about his Passion.
None of this, however, is a human discovery but rather a gift from God that only makes sense in light of the Resurrection. It is the risen Christ who opens the Scriptures to the disciples and the disciples to the Scriptures. That is why, coming down from the mount, Jesus instructs Peter, James, and John, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of man is raised from the dead” (Matt. 17:9). That is why icons of Christ Pantocrator often feature the risen and ascended Lord holding open the Scriptures, not just to the disciples, but to you and I. In order to understand, trust, love, and adore, we must allow Jesus to do what he does, to read the Scriptures to us and open our minds to understand, to offer us eternal life.
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” So says the voice of the Father from the “bright cloud” that had overshadowed them. Then a number of things happened. The disciples heard the voice, fell on their faces, and were filled with awe. Note the verbs: heard, fell, filled. Personally, I find this greatly sobering. When I ask God to speak, do I suppose that I would be capable of any response other than to fall down with my face to the ground, overcome with awe? “Human weakness is not strong enough to bear the sight of such great glory but trembles with its whole heart and body and falls to earth,” wrote Jerome. Indeed.
On the other hand, Jesus came, touched them, and said, “Rise, and have no fear.” Note the verbs: came, touched, said. That’s what Jesus has done and does. Jesus draws near, attaches himself to us, and speaks a word of life.
“And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.” Again, I’m no language scholar, but the Greek does emphasize the point: “they saw no one except Jesus, himself, alone.” I take this to mean that Jesus is totally and utterly unique, without peer, without equal.
Yes, Moses and Elijah are significant figures in God’s saving work, and yes they are there with Jesus, and yes they are speaking about Jesus, but they are emphatically not Jesus, who alone is the beloved Son of God. When Jesus raises the disciples up, Moses and Elijah have faded away, and it is Jesus alone who remains. Jesus, “the Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father” (Article II). Jesus, “the Lamb without spot, who, by sacrifice of himself once made, should take away the sins of the world, and sin, as Saint John saith, was not in him” (Article XV). Jesus, our righteousness and our justification. Jesus, our life and our hope. Jesus, our brother and our friend.
And yet, the 2006 General Convention of the Episcopal Church refused at the time to consider Resolution D058, “Salvation Through Christ Alone.” One deputy who spoke against the resolution reportedly declared it “too controversial” a subject to discuss. But, as always, the question with respect to Christian doctrine must not be “Is this too controversial?” but rather “Is this true?” With respect to the uniqueness of Christ for salvation, the Scriptures, the apostles, the prayer book, the Church throughout the ages, and Jesus himself have answered with a resounding “Yes!”
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”