Transfiguration: God’s glory revealed in self-giving love

Gospel for March 12, 2017

Second Sunday of Lent

By Glen Argan

transfiguration1The Transfiguration (Matthew 17.1-9) is one of the great stories of the New Testament. Typically, it is interpreted as a story which reveals that Christ’s glory and his passion are one. That is true, but I think that taken alone such an interpretation rushes ahead too quickly to the conclusion without revelling in the moment.

Outside of Christ’s resurrection, the Transfiguration is the greatest theophany in the Gospels. It is an extremely high revelation of the beauty and glory of Christ’s divinity. It also reveals the trinitarian nature of God. As well, Hans Urs von Balthasar calls it “the first installment of the eschatological transfiguration of the world as a whole.”

So, first, stay with the revelation.

God’s glory as revealed in Christ is more than we can understand or imagine. The evangelists struggle with words to describe the event. Peter wants the theophany to never end.

The evangelists paint a picture of intense beauty and peace. They rely upon Old Testament revelations of God’s presence to show the importance of the Transfiguration. When Moses came down the mountain with the tablets of the Law after talking with God, his face shone so much that he had to cover it with a veil (Exodus 34.29-35). With Jesus, however, it was not only his face but even his clothes that were dazzling white.

(The difficulty of portraying the Transfiguration can be seen in this stained glass work from Edmonton’s St. Joseph’s Basilica. It doesn’t come close.)

As Peter spoke, the voice of the Father spoke from a bright cloud – the Holy Spirit – and proclaimed, “This is my Son, the Beloved.”

Today, we can create fantastic displays with fireworks, neon lights and computer special effects. One suspects that even these human technologies cannot manufacture anything as spectacular as occurred on Mount Tabor.

Take a moment to try to imagine what you would have witnessed if you were present with Jesus, Moses, Elijah and the three apostles on the mountain. Place yourself in the scene and try to sense how overwhelming it must have been to be totally immersed in the presence of God.

Then, come down the mountain with Jesus. Listen to him say, mere moments after arriving at the foot of the mountain: “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day, he will be raised” (17.23).

I am like the disciples; I don’t like this part of the story. But it is here we find the fullness of the revelation. Christ’s glory – God’s glory – is fully revealed, not on the mountaintop, but through the cross and resurrection. Balthasar hyphenates the two – cross-resurrection – to make it clear they are one event. God’s glory and his self-emptying love are one and the same.

This is a truth deeper than what happens in the Son’s life on earth. It reveals something essential about the Trinity – that the Father and Son are self-giving love, so infinite and total that this love gives eternal birth to a third person, the Holy Spirit. This self-emptying – this kenosis – is such an integral part of God’s life that it is invoked in the hymn recorded in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2.6-11): Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness . . ..”

Out of this description of Christ’s mission, Paul draws the implication for how humans ought to live: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (2.4). As God’s creatures, created in his image and likeness, humans should also strive to act as God lives.

So, God is revealed in unfathomable glory; several religions understand that. However, only a trinitarian religion sees the fullness of revelation – that God is self-emptying love, a love that overflows infinitely so that God is not one, but three-in-one. By plumbing the depths of the New Testament, we can discern God’s trinitarian nature and how it calls us to empty ourselves in order to share in the fullness of divine life.

[Other readings: Genesis 12.1-4; Psalm 33; 2 Timothy 1.8-10]

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