And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.
Mark 9: 2-3
The Transfiguration of Jesus is revelation and invitation. It is a revelation to the disciples of the true identity of Jesus and so, by extension, the true identity of each of us as human persons. It is also an invitation to undertake the human journey of formation that makes possible the manifestation and radiation of our distinctively human possibilities in the world.
Throughout the gospels we hear in one form or another the repeated question of where does Jesus come from? Matthew’s gospel takes great pains to show how Jesus, in fulfillment of the prophecies concerning the Messiah, truly does come from Bethlehem. In John, the question is a much less historical one and rather a more spiritual and mystical one. When the first disciples ask Jesus where he lives, he invites them to “come and see.” Both gospels, in very different ways, are telling us that Jesus is the prophesied Messiah and Lord, the Son of God who comes from and lives in God.
The Eastern Church has always understood more fully that the Transfiguration is also a revelation of who we most deeply are and of the life we share with Jesus in God. We are not truly and distinctively human until our lives are manifestations of the glory of God from which we come and in which we “live, and move, and have our being.” This is not a “status” we attain by our own willful effort, but rather the reality of who we are when we die to our pretenses enough to allow the life of Jesus within to emerge.
The gospel passage today stops short of the entire dialogue between Jesus and his disciples as they descend from the mountain. In it, Jesus reminds the disciples that the glory they have seen, the glory that He is and in which they share, will only come about through suffering and death. The invitation of the Transfiguration to us is to give ourselves over to unique journey of formation that is ours, to the sufferings of life that will draw us into the death of all that is not of God in us, so that the glory of God we share in may become manifest – in our living and our dying.
The Transfiguration reminds us that to be truly human is to become formed into the image of God that is God’s intention in creating us. What that means in practice is that we come to serve not our own will but the dominion of God. As we read in today’s passage from Daniel, “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away; his kingship shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7: 14). It is only by dying to our claims of autonomous dominion that God’s life can come to expression in us. Our true life is expressed not in dominance and willfulness but in obedience and service. We can learn this humbly and practice it willingly, or we can fight the truth until our last anxiety-filled gasp. One way or another, we shall be taught that “The kingdom and the power and the glory are yours” and not ours.
Today is also the anniversary of the nuclear bombing of the Japanese city of Hiroshima by the United States in which over 160,000 civilian inhabitants were killed, over half of them on the first day. This is a singular manifestation of the channeling of our human capacities as separate from their source. It represents what is always the greatest ill affecting the human race: our inability to ask the question of whether we should always do what we can do. Progress for us far too often means the distancing of what we create from the will of the One who gives us the power to do so. It is our attempt to have a dominion that is not ours.
May today’s Feast be an invitation to repentance for all the ways, personal and societal, that we have forgotten whose we are, and for all the suffering we have caused as a result. May it also be an invitation to practice, in the small and ordinary ways life presents us with today, a releasing of our willfulness in favor of a willingness to serve God’s sovereignty.
In our state of emptiness, in which we we are one with God in his love, there begins a superessential contemplative experience which is the highest which anyone could express in words. This is a dying life and a living death, in which we go out of our own being into our superessential beatitude. It occurs when, through grace and God’s help, we have so mastered ourselves that we can become free of images every time we wish, right up to that empty state of being where we are one with God. This takes place in the fathomless abyss of his love, where we find full satisfaction, for we have God within us and are blessed in our very being through the interior working of God. There we are one with God in love, though not in being or nature. Rather, we are blessed – and blessedness itself – in God’s essential being, where God enjoys both himself and all of us in God’s sublime nature. This is the core of love, which is hidden from us in darkness and in a state of unknowing which has no ground.
Jan van Ruusbroec, The Mirror of Eternal Blessedness, III, D