Transfigurations: A Poem and an Painting

Earlier this week I posted some thought-provoking words from theologians about Jesus’s Transfiguration. Their words have helped me to grapple with the text at hand. Now, late in the week, I have been reflecting with a poem and a painting as I try to compose a sermon worthy of this moment in Christ’s life (Matthew 17:1-13).

The painting is Raphael’s masterpiece. In Transfiguration, he helpfully maintains the unity of the gospel story by converging the Transfiguration scene and the story that follows: the healing of the epileptic boy. Raphael’s use of light and dark evoke a tension in the viewer. I’d not thought of how light as a literary element in the story works to wake the reader up to what we are seeing. As Peter says, “We were eyewitnesses of His majesty,” a majesty of glory and honor from “the Majestic Glory” (2 Peter 1:16-17). The light that shines from Christ’s face and through his clothes is nothing less than the glory of God, a resplendent light in this darkened world.

Transfiguration by Raphael / Wikidata.org

The people at the foot of the mountain are in chaos. Some are pointing in one direction while others point wildly in another. This is our life. Filled with darkness. Fractured with distractions. But there is something to notice in the way these people relate to one another. Look at the epileptic boy’s father. His eyes bulge, as he desperately seeks help for his child. The two women nearest the boy point at the him but look elsewhere. This seems important. At least one of them is looking directly at the man in a red robe, who is pointing to the transfigured Jesus. While the disciples are unable to cast out the demon, as the story tells us, at least a few people in the scene know Who is able and who will cast out all demons in due course. In the darkness at the foot of the mountain, a finger points to the light. It is the visual of Matthew’s repeated “Beholds!” It is the image for Peter’s later reflection on this event, which he uses to “stir up” the people who are getting comfortable in their worldly “dwellings,” encouraging them instead toward life in Christ’s glorious light (2 Peter 1:5-15).

The poet and priest Malcolm Guite’s poem for the Feast of Transfiguration captures what I’ve tried to say here in an outstanding sonnet. I call attention to four lines before leaving you with the whole thing. “The love that dances at the heart of things / Shone out upon us from a human face.” The transfiguration is a revelation of Divine Love that shatters our experience of time: the past witnesses of God’s love dance in the light of the future glory, which shines out from Christ the Lord. This luminous light awakens us to God’s own loving self-involvement in our world. “Nor can this blackened sky, this darkened scar, / Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.” We have in the transfiguration a glimpse of how things truly are, how God’s glory holds all things together, works all things together, draws all things together to their completion. Undoubtedly, if we are able to catch even a glimpse of that, our own lives may suddenly begin a dramatic reordering of priorities (see especially 2 Peter 1:5-8). We must heed the man in red’s insistent pointing: behold Christ’s glory, and live!

Christ’s words to the disciples on the way down from the mountain, however, remind us that the Transfiguration is only a beginning of what Christ’s death and resurrection and ascension institute. If in his transfiguration we are given a glimpse of how things really are, in his death and resurrection we are made “partakers of the divine nature,” set free to be who we truly are (2 Peter 1:4).

Transfiguration by Malcolm Guite

For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.

One thought on “Transfigurations: A Poem and an Painting

  1. Pingback: Behold: A Transfiguration Song – Theology Forum

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