…[T]hrough the luminous brightness that shone from the face of the Lord on the mount the thrice-blessed apostles were secretly led in an ineffable and unknowable manner to the power and glory of God which is completely incomprehensible to every being, for they learnt that the light that appeared to their senses is a symbol of what is hidden and beyond any manifestation. For as the ray of the light that came to pass here overwhelmed the strength of the eyes and remained beyond their grasp, so also God transcends all the power and strength of the mind and leaves no kind of trace for the mind to experience.
Maximus the Confessor, Difficulty 10 in Andrew Louth, ed. Maximus the Confessor (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 128.
The Transfiguration story is the final Gospel appointed for the Sundays after the Epiphany. It tells us something about any theophany, defined as God’s act of self-manifestation to us. Because God is absolutely incomprehensible, theophany never means simply conveying secret knowledge, especially if by knowledge we mean the kind that grasps and controls its object. Rather, theophany leads to deeper participation (itself a form of knowledge) in a Mystery who is Wholly Other. Indeed the living God is so fully Other, that God is free to be with us and in us, more intimate than our inmost selves. Without ceasing to be God, God is free to be the innermost source of all we are. God is free to share God’s own life ever more fully with us.
The stammering of Peter before the transfigured Christ gives way to a more perfect disclosure of who the Lord Jesus in fact is. The voice and the cloud are reminiscent of many Old Testament theophanies, and Christ is himself flanked by Moses and Elijah (the Law and the Prophets?), figures who had direct personal acquaintance with the Holy One. The words spoken by the voice also remind us of the Trinitarian theophany at the Jordan, with which the Sundays of this season began.
As we turn the corner into Lent, we ought to bear in mind that the Transfiguration also foreshadows the Paschal mystery. Like the Easter Gospel of the Lord’s dying and rising–or, for that matter, any good story about God–the Transfiguration story creates as many problems as it solves. Ultimately, we are led into a set of relationships that we cannot contain or control, only accept and embrace as divine gift. The nearest analogy in our experience is falling and being in love. The beloved really gives himself or herself, yet remains beyond our grasp or control.
Indeed, it is love that binds us to God, so that our flesh (body and soul), might be transformed into Christ’s likeness, from glory to glory.
As we enter the desert, and ultimately the darkness, may we adhere to God in love.