transfiguration and hope: a lamp shining in a dark place
I’m working on the final edits of a new book, currently having skirmishes with an outside editor. In the section where I talk about the transfiguration I added in my favorite story from the desert tradition:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
And the editor suggested that it didn’t fit the chapter and I should consider deleting it. I answered politely and yet firmly… “Not on your life!” If we don’t get this piece of it––that we can be all fire––we don’t understand what the Church is trying to convey to us in this feast through the readings and the prayers.
This year I was most attracted to the last line of the second reading that is offered to us for this feast, from the second Letter of Peter: You will do well to be attentive to this, as to a lamp shining in a dark place… Remember that the story of the Transfiguration is also told on the second Sunday of Lent and in that case it is introduced and contextualized by a reading from Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians, a reading that contains a promise that is almost too powerful to be believed: He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory (Phil 3:21). Other translations say he will transfigure our lowly bodies into glorious copies of his own, just in case we miss the tie in with the transfiguration of Jesus. We’re supposed to share in this glory, not unlike the resurrection. The proper communion antiphon for today from the Roman Missal is from 1 John: When Christ appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Somehow it is to this promise––that we shall be like him––that we should be attentive to as well, as if to a lamp shining in a dark place, the promise that we can experience this transfiguration. We are supposed to keep our eye on the transfigured Jesus, on the Christ event, because that is the source of our hope. And that’s what all this leads me to today––a sense of hope, the seed of our hope, not wishful thinking but that deep abiding hope.
It’s only Matthew that adds the detail that Jesus’ face shone like the sun, which seems to be an illusion to the vision of Daniel that we heard in the first reading today (Dan 7:9-10, 13-14), one like a human being coming on the clouds of heaven. (The other place that the New Testament uses the imagery drawn from this vision of Daniel is in the Book of Revelation, referring to the Risen Christ.) What is this or, better yet, who is this? Who is this “one like a human being”? (Or “Son of Man”?) In many religious traditions there is the idea of a Perfect One, the Great Person who is the blueprint, you might say, the archetype for all other creatures, especially the model of the human being. In Indian thought it’s the Purusha; in Kabbalah, it’s adam kadmon. Islam speaks of al-insan al-kamil. Christianity adopts this image from the Book of Daniel of the “one like a human being” (or “Son of Man”) to refer to Christ as this Great Person. Fr. Bede associated the great Colossians canticle he is the image of the unseen God, the first born of all creation in whom all things were made, with the beautiful Indian hymn, “I know that Great Person of the sunlight splendor beyond the darkness. Only by knowing that one do we go beyond death.” We keep getting told to keep gazing at this one, why? Because this Perfect One is both our origin and our destiny. He is both the pattern on which we were created and the goal toward which we are evolving. And in his transfiguration Jesus is showing us what he really is, in his full glory, even before the resurrection, the fullness of the Godhead dwelling in him bodily, because he is perfectly surrendered to the Ground of Being, to the Holy Spirit who is his power . . . and that too is the source of our hope. Right after Paul says in the Letter to the Colossians that the fullness of the godhead dwelt in him bodily he adds and you have come to fullness in him!
If that all sounds too theoretical, let me put it in context. If this is what the human person is supposed to live up to, humanity is not showing its best face right now. There doesn’t actually seem to be too much reason to hope. For one thing, we in the modern world have the dubious luxury of always associating August 6th with the dropping of the first atomic bomb, another burst of seemingly unearthly light, sublime in its awe-inspiring majesty, but in the light of this feast it seems like an evil caricature of the real thing, the Taboric light that emanated from Jesus. That was humanity at its worst––so garish, so brutal, so gaudy and flashy. Don’t look at that light! Look instead to the transfigured body of Jesus as if to a lamp shining in a dark place. Another example: With the incredible bloodshed in the Middle East right now, between Iraq and Syria, and Israel and Palestine, in Africa, these decades old conflicts that really go back centuries just rearing their ugly heads up again. How can we continue to have hope that peace with justice will ever prevail, that human beings will ever stop being so stupid as to think that violence is a permanent solution to anything? In order to have hope, we need to keep our eyes on the archetype, the blueprint and the goal of the human person––we need to keep our eyes on the transfigured Jesus––as if to a lamp shining in a dark place. Against all the evidence, hope bids us, impels us, orders us to remember our origin and our end, that humanity is destined for that, that we receive from his fullness. Every single day I seem to read how much closer we are to ecological disaster, that it may be too late to turn the tide of global warming, how the ice cap is melting even more rapidly, that the air in yet another city is so bad that people have to wear masks to breathe out in public; and yet we go on mindlessly consuming and polluting. When I am recycling my little plastic milk bottles, when I am careful to have only one electrical device running at a time, I feel like an idiot. What good does my little part do in the face of factories belching out pollution and mountains of plastic turning into mulch? Well, hope isn’t based on the fact that it looks good. Hope means doing the right thing no matter what the evidence suggests. And our hope is that all creation too is going to share in this glory––because Christ is and will be all in all. Our hope is in the promise of Jesus that we and all creation will one day be brought into right relationship with the divine and suffused with Divine Light, but we first as the priests of creation.
A friend of mine and I keep referring back to the writings of Vaclav Havel on hope. Havel says that, “Hope is a state of mind… a dimension of the soul… an orientation of the spirit…” If that’s true, then the state of mind for the Christian is based on the fact that we keep our eyes on the transfigured Lord, the forerunner and pioneer of our faith, the blueprint and the goal, as if to a lamp shining in a dark place, with the deep seated conviction that in the end humanity and all creation is destined for glory, for divinization, for transfiguration, that we receive from his glory light upon light, and that God will be all in all in us as in Christ.