Sermon Ideas For Luke 9:28-43 Part 4
For Luke the "transfiguration" is a story of both light and shadow. As Jesus prays, his countenance changes and his clothes become "dazzling white" (9:29, NRSV). This is a fair rendering of the Greek behind these words, which suggests both shining and flashing. Jerome's Latin, however, uses the word refulgens, suggesting something deeper than dazzle, a radiance or resplendence. The disciples who have accompanied him up the mountain see this, Jesus' "glory" (9:32-Greek; Latin maiestatem, "majesty"), as well as that of Moses and Elijah standing with him. But then a cloud comes, overshadows them, and frightens them. They hear the voice of God: "Jesus is the Chosen One." But they tell no one of the experience for several days.
Artists tend to be drawn more to light than to darkness. It is obviously easier to depict what one can see than what one cannot. The Jesus of The Transfiguration of Raphael (1483-1520) is dazzling, though the light in which he is bathed is less white than golden. Likely Raphael had in mind Matthew's account of the event, which describes Jesus' face as "shining like the sun."
Hymns of the transfiguration have also focused on the light. Some see the story as prefiguring the Easter story, the transfiguration as a type of the resurrection. Thus, each verse of Brian Wren's Jesus on the Mountain Peak concludes with the Easter refrain, "Alleluiah!"
But Wren's hymn, like the fifteenth-century, O Wondrous Type, O Vision Fair, looks beyond Easter to the Easter church. Because of the resurrection, the church can see more than what is every-day apparent. It does "join the saints and angels praising."
No one carried this notion further (and more beautifully further) than the Scots poet Edwin Muir (1887-1959), who in the transfiguration itself imagined the disciples as able to see through the world as it is to the world as it shall be. The transfiguration for Muir becomes then not only a type of the resurrection but of the second coming, a new paradise.
Muir had himself an extraordinary ability to "see beyond," if often in odd, troubled ways. Born the son of a tenant farmer, in Orkney, he moved to Glasgow when he was fourteen, and in the next five years lost both his parents and two of his brothers. He himself suffered physical and mental ill-health much of his life. His poetry, which can be simultaneously orderly and disorienting, is influenced by the stark landscapes of his childhood, the lush journeys of his dreams, and his experiences in psychoanalysis and as a translator of Kafka.
In "The Transfiguration," Muir imagines the disciples themselves as transfigured by the experience, hand and eye:
Even their clothes are made "white." They would have thrown them away "for lightness."
The entire world is transfigured, as if Eden were unlocked in the their ability to "see that day the unseeable / One glory of the everlasting world": "The painted animals/Assembled in gentle congregations wild and tame together"; murderers and thieves "out of their dungeons and …free" and tame.
But the disciples in Muir's poem are not the dolts of Luke's gospel. They are not unaware of what is too soon to come. Jesus is right to call them a "faithless and perverse generation" (9:40). All too soon they will be arguing among themselves about who is the greatest (9:46). Eventually, they will betray him (9:44).
The transfiguration: was it "reality or vision"?
Muir sees beyond the transfiguration not only to the resurrection but also to the coming again. Then Christ will not only be raised; he will be "uncrucified," "discrucified." The tormented world will be healed.
May it be so, and may we this day catch at least a glimpse of the glory of such a possibility.