The Politics of Spectacle—Luke 9:28-36 (Alastair Roberts)

The Politics of Scripture, Lectionary

Spectacle has always played an important role in establishing power, authority, and sovereignty. In the unity of the dazzling body of the Transfiguration and the brutalized body of the crucifixion, the integrity of the spectacle and that which lies beneath is made known and our own polities’ lack of such integrity is challenged.

28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

The event of the Transfiguration occurs near the beginning of the second great phase in Jesus’ public earthly ministry, as he turns his face towards Jerusalem and his death. If the initial phase of his ministry formally began with the theophanic vision at his baptism by John in the Jordan, it is the theophanic event of the Transfiguration that marks out the start of its second great movement, which in various respects parallels the first.

In each of the gospel accounts, the ascent of Jesus and his disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration is preceded by a reference to Christ’s future advent in his Father’s glory (Matthew 16:27-28; Mark 8:38—9:1; Luke 9:26-27). Christ, clothed in dreadful majesty, and accompanied by the angelic host, will appear in dazzling and awesome splendour. Those prepared to lose their lives for his sake will share in his glory, while those who surrendered their souls to the pursuit of the world’s fleeting riches and praise will be put to lasting shame.

In each of the gospels, a startling declaration of Jesus that some of those present would ‘not taste death’ before seeing the kingdom of God (Matthew 16:28; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27) serves as the transition from the earlier teaching to the narrative account of the Transfiguration. The connection is important and serves to mark out the Transfiguration as an anticipatory parousia, a connection also made explicit in 2 Peter 1:16-18:

16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For he received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ 18 We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.

The Transfiguration is an apocalypse (an ‘uncovering’) and parousia (a ‘presence’ or ‘coming’) of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is an unveiling of the King and of the kingdom of God already secretly present and at work, beneath the swirling fog of questions surrounding Jesus’ identity. Before he heads towards Jerusalem, Jesus discloses to a select group of his disciples this dazzling yet hidden reality, a reality in whose light all else must necessarily appear in a radically altered aspect. The glorified Christ is the light that once pierced the darkness of the creation, the great illuminating Truth of the world before which all falsehood will ultimately melt away, the Sun of righteousness whose dawning will herald the great and final day. Now this great and glorious King will descend incognito into the multitude and set his face towards the most shameful and cruel of deaths on a Roman cross.

The contrast between the view from the summit of the Mount of Transfiguration and the appearance of matters from its base couldn’t be more remarkable. The itinerant prophet and wonder-worker—the poor son of the carpenter—at the base; the One who is the glorious theophanic revelation of God at the summit. The powerless victim journeying towards a degrading death at the hands of plotting rulers at the base; the powerful King about to accomplish his great Exodus (̓έξοδος—verse 31), overcoming death and delivering a multitude of captives, at the summit. Bathed in the uncreated light of the transfiguration, everything appears differently and the glorious terrain of a new landscape of meaning emerges to our view.

Sovereignty has historically been manifested and exercised in no small measure through spectacle and through glory. The regal finery with which monarchs are attired, the imposing grandeur of government buildings, the elaborate ritual, ceremony, and pageantry of state occasions, the extravagance of titles and honours, the grandiloquence of state speeches, the exactitude of official etiquette, the lavishness of the provisions for state banquets, the grand exhibitions of marshalled might in military reviews: in these and many other ways sovereignty, power, and authority express and exert themselves in the mode of glory. The spectacle is the clothing of power and sovereignty, the manner in which it manifests itself to the world. As sovereign majesty and might present themselves to be gazed upon in the spectacle, populations can be entranced, enthralled, and arrested, bound together in a sense of reverence, deference, awe, fear, solemnity, delight, or admiration, the public’s imagination captivated.

In the spectacle the quasi-transcendence of sovereignty is affirmed and displayed. A constant lurking fear is that the mortality and weakness of the king’s ‘natural body’ might appear beneath the majestic clothing of the ‘body politic’ (Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies is a significant treatment of this distinction), the latter proving to be naught but a fragile and fading façade over an underlying impotence, or that the mask of the state’s glory might slip to expose its face of brutality. Maintaining the spectacle imbues realities with dignity and symbolic purchase in the popular imagination that they might otherwise lack.

The Transfiguration is a spectacle displaying royal glory and majesty, a manifestation of a rule that is operative in the world. Yet Christ’s kingship, while gloriously displayed in the Transfiguration, is no masquerade beneath a tissue of symbolism and spectacle: his is no ‘hollow crown’. Christ is a king who divests himself of the spectacle of the Mount of Transfiguration, being raised up in the immediacy of his naked mortality on the Mount of Calvary. The dazzling body of the Transfiguration and the whip-furrowed body of the Crucifixion can only truly be understood in relation to each other—they are one and the same.

Our fear of nakedness and death can often lurk within our hunger for national spectacle, for the conspicuous display of power, might, and majesty. Captivated by the intoxicating spectacle of national sovereignty, power, and glory we can, often wilfully, inure ourselves to the ugliness, the brutality, the injustice, the corruption, the weakness, and the mortality of what lies beneath. The clothing of spectacle does not only project and display: it also covers up. The integrity of Christ’s sovereignty, made known in the singularity of the transfigured and crucified body, challenges us to consider and address the ways in which our own nations’ lack of integrity is dissembled behind spectacle.

The Transfiguration, as an anticipation of the final coming of Christ and the great public disclosure of his glory, foreshadows a great revelation yet to come. The judgment to come will be one of transfiguration, the creation flooded with the light of Christ’s glory, revealing everything, for the very first time, for what it truly is. As all human spectacle dissolves before his splendour, what shall be found beneath?

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