A gospel story that challenges my reductionist assumptions.
An Orthodox icon of the Transfiguration
When I read the gospel stories of Jesus’ transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36), I have lots of questions. The stories describe something so out of ordinary human experience that I don’t know what to make of it.
Is this story a case of the gospel writers engaging in a form of myth-making to create a numinous aura around Jesus? Or did this event really happen in Jesus’ ministry?
If the story is real, what are we to make of the brilliant light? Should we understand it as a supernatural breakthrough into ordinary material reality? The natural world possesses no such divine light, but for one bright moment, God works a supernatural miracle.
Or is it the case that the natural world already possesses–and has always possessed–this divine glory, but our natural organs of perception cannot perceive it? To explain what I mean, let me draw upon the analogy of radio waves. Radio waves have always existed, but humans could not perceive them and exploit them until we invented radio receivers. In the transfiguration, were Peter, James, and John for one short moment given the spiritual organs to perceive the divine glory that permeates all creation?
Finally, was the transfiguration of Jesus a completely unique event that has happened to no one else in history? Or is it an experience that can be potentially, if not often, repeated in the experience of other humans?
These questions will suggest that I take the story of the transfiguration quite seriously. I do indeed. One reason is my extensive reading in Eastern Orthodox theology. The Orthodox give prominence to this story, especially in their spirituality.
My Dialogue with Orthodoxy
As Orthodox writers understand it, when Jesus was transfigured on the mountain top, he shone with the brilliant, uncreated light of divinity. The three disciples–Peter, James, and John–are given the privilege of perceiving that light, something human beings cannot normally do.
What they perceive is the glory that is to come when God’s creative/redemptive plan is complete. All humanity will shine in this divine light.
It will be the fulfillment of that great hope which the apostle Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 5:1-5. There he says he knows that death will strip us of mortal bodies (which he describes as tents). But we will not be left as naked spirits. Rather we will be re-clothed. We will receive new bodies, but superior bodies that he refers to in the metaphor of “heavenly dwellings.”
Orthodox theology refers to this transformation as theosis or divinization. And a part of that transformation will include our new bodies shining with the same light that the disciples saw at Jesus’ transfiguration.
The Book of Revelation does not limit this transformation to human beings. It will envelope all creation:
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. (Revelation 21:22-23)
The Testimony of Saint Seraphim of Sarov
Clearly then what Jesus and the three disciples experienced on the mountain was a foretaste of life in the Eschaton when the kingdom of God will come in its fullness. But was the one foretaste of the eschaton a one and only one-time event? Orthodox spirituality says no. Other Christians may occasionally—even though rarely—experience it, too.
Seraphim of Sarov
The most accessible account of such an experience is the one told about Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1754-1833) by the Russian writer Nicholas Motovilov (1809-1879). Seraphim was a starets, a monk who lived in seclusion in a hut in a forest. His sanctity was so renowned that many sought him out for spiritual direction. Motovilov was one of those.
One winter day, the two of them were walking in the forest and talking about the Holy Spirit. Seraphim was talking about the need of acquiring the Holy Spirit. In response, Motovilov asked, “How can a man be sure of ‘being in the Spirit of God.’
Then Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: “We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don’t you look at me?”
I replied: “I cannot look, Father, because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain.”
Father Seraphim said: “Don’t be alarmed, your Godliness! Now you yourself have become as bright as I am. You are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God yourself; otherwise you would not be able to see me as I am.”
Then, bending his head towards me, he whispered softly in my ear: “Thank the Lord God for His unutterable mercy to us! You saw that I did not even cross myself; and only in my heart I prayed mentally to the Lord God and said within myself: ‘Lord, grant him to see clearly with his bodily eyes that descent of Thy Spirit which Thou grantest to Thy servants when Thou art pleased to appear in the light of Thy magnificent glory.’ And you see, my son, the Lord instantly fulfilled the humble prayer of poor Seraphim. How then shall we not thank Him for this unspeakable gift to us both? Even to the greatest hermits, my son, the Lord God does not always show His mercy in this way. This grace of God, like a loving mother, has been pleased to comfort your contrite heart at the intercession of the Mother of God herself. But why, my son, do you not look me in the eyes? Just look, and don’t be afraid! The Lord is with us!”
After these words I glanced at his face and there came over me an even greater reverent awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light of its midday rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders; yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his figure, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards and illumining with its glaring sheen both the snow-blanket which covered the forest glade and the snow-flakes which besprinkled me and the great Elder. You can imagine the state I was in!
“How do you feel now?” Father Seraphim asked me.
“Extraordinarily well,” I said.
“But in what way? How exactly do you feel well?”
I answered: “I feel such calmness and peace in my soul that no words can express it.”
“This, your Godliness,” said Father Seraphim, “is that peace of which the Lord said to His disciples: My peace I give unto you; not as the world gives, give I unto you (Jn. 14:21). If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you (Jn. 15:19). But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (Jn. 16:33). And to those people whom this world hates but who are chosen by the Lord, the Lord gives that peace which you now feel within you, the peace which, in the words of the Apostle, passes all understanding (Phil. 4:7)…What else do you feel?” Father Seraphim asked me.
“An extraordinary sweetness,” I replied.
And he continued: “This is that sweetness of which it is said in Holy Scripture: They will be inebriated with the fatness of Thy house; and Thou shalt make them drink of the torrent of Thy delight (Ps. 35:8). And now this sweetness is flooding our hearts and coursing through our veins with unutterable delight. From this sweetness our hearts melt as it were, and both of us are filled with such happiness as tongue cannot tell. What else do you feel?”
“An extraordinary joy in all my heart.”
And Father Seraphim continued: “When the Spirit of God comes down to man and overshadows him with the fullness of His inspiration, then the human soul overflows with unspeakable joy, for the Spirit of God fills with joy whatever He touches.*
A Story Bearing Cautions
When I first read this conversation when I was in college, I was astounded by it. I did not know what to make of it then nor now, just as I don’t know what to make of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration.
Both stories challenge me, however, not to lock myself into reductionist assumptions about God or our relationship with God. There are mysteries to what God can do in the world, mysteries that we may not be able to understand but that we also dare not exclude from human experience. All this confirms for me the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins,
The world is charged with the grandeur of God,
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil…**
Quite literally so, I have come to believe, more than most of us are ready to concede.
Yet the transfiguration accounts caution us not to become obsessed with such extraordinary experiences or even to seek them out. They are, as Seraphim says, gifts of God’s grace when they come, but always rare and extraordinary gifts.
Peter in the stories represents those who would seek out and try to possess these experiences. He wants to build three booths to commemorate them. But the voice from heaven deflects him from this desire. Instead it says, This is my Son, my Beloved; listen to him. (Mark 9:6)
We are not to be bedazzled by the experiences, but to listen to and live by the word Jesus speaks. And it is no accident, I believe, that in its context, the words that Jesus speaks immediately before the transfiguration are the words:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? (Mark 8:36-38)
Here is the wisdom—and the light–Jesus confers. And it is accessible to anyone who truly and intently listens.
* You can access a complete transcript of the conversation between Nicholas Motovilov and Seraphim at the Orthodox Christian Information Center site.
** These are the opening lines of his sonnet “God’s Grandeur.”