Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother, John,
and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them;
his face shone like the sun
and his clothes became white as light.
And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them,
conversing with him.
– Mt 17:1-3
I write, on a gray-skied working Wednesday, of what the Greek-Catholic Dominican priest Jean Corbon called “the historical and literary center of the Gospel,” the transfiguration of Christ. It’s Fr. Corbon – and more particularly his toweringly great book on the sacred liturgy, The Wellspring of Worship – who has put me up to unpacking such an audacious claim.
Corbon’s aims in the book go farther can be summarized here, but one of the themes he returns to over and again is divination – which involves, to paraphrase Athanasius, recognizing that God became human so that humans might become divine. The transfiguration, which according to Corbon is the center of the Gospel, is the event that reveals that divination is possible. In other words, what we celebrate on the feast of the transfiguration is not an “impossible unveiling” of Jesus as Christ to the disciples, but a “moment of intensity” in which the always-already-existing unity of the Father and Son (into which we are all invited) is made visible (p93). Corbon writes:
“The transfiguration of the Word gives a glimpse of the fullness of what the Word inaugurated in his Incarnation and manifested after his baptism by his miracles: namely, the truth that the body of the Lord Jesus is the sacrament that gives the life of God to men. When our humanity consents without reserve to be united to the humanity of Jesus, it will share the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4); it will be divinized” (p95).
All of which raises, for me, a question: who is it that is being transfigured on this feast day, in this reading? Corbon is clear in his answer: it is not Jesus. Nothing has changed for him. Instead, it is the disciples who are changed; us. St. John of Damascus agrees. Christ, he says, “was transfigured, not by acquiring what he was not but by manifesting to his disciples what he in fact was; he opened their eyes and gave these blind men sight.” In other words, in the transfiguration we are given a glimpse of the telos of humanity: union with God.
The thing is that this ongoing transfiguration, this unity that God so desires to accomplish with us, requires our consent. “When our humanity consents without reserve to be united to the humanity of Jesus, it will share the divine nature,” Corbon writes. Which means that the transfiguration is the revelation of what will happen to us when we approach, as closely as we can, the constant consent that is Jesus’ relationship to the Father. It is because it is consent that is required that it cannot be coerced from us.
Remembering that, along with Elijah, it was Moses who stood next to Jesus on the mountaintop, Corbon turns his attention to consent as well, remembering the fire that does not consume the burning bush. Neither does Jesus, who is that same divine fire, burn away our humanity or consume our freedom as we are made more divine. Instead, the “Holy One does not destroy but penetrates… everything that is.” Instead, “the flame that burns us without consuming… reveals itself by giving itself and become known by being received. It is not our flesh that stands in the way of our seeing, as the ancient dualisms claim, but our lack of selfless generosity and love or, in other words, our death” (p88). This is what the vision of the transfiguration we are given asks us to relinquish: not our humanity, not our freedom, but our ego.
As we are well aware, this is an endless task.
For me one of the regular temptations that accompanies the task (which is also the greatest of gifts) of celebrating mass daily, is to turn my prayer into homily preparation. One of the best things about learning from Fr. Corbon is the recession of this temptation. How, after all, could my heart not be opened to the God of my life when reading – study – enacts the mysterious, divinizing union that God desires not just on the feast of the transfiguration, but everyday. Reading, I mean, words such as these:
“If, then, Jesus is transfigured, the reason is that the Father causes his own joy to flame out in him. The radiance of the light in the suffering body of Jesus is, as it were, the thrill experienced by the Father in response to the total self-giving of his only Son. This explains the voice that pierces through the cloud: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favor. Listen to him” (p93).
Joy. Radiance. Suffering. Thrill. Pierce. Beloved. Listen. Be transfigured. Amen.