The Politics of Transfiguration: Transformation’s Shadow Side (Luke 9:28-36)

Church and Nation, Civil Religion, The Politics of Scripture, Lectionary

In the lectionary, Transfiguration follows the season of Epiphany with one last display of light. The lights flare brilliantly and momentarily and then are dimmed. The gospel then sends readers on their way, on the road through Lent following Jesus toward Jerusalem and the cross.

[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, focusing on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and popular literature, film, and artistic expression. Inquiries and submissions may be sent to david.true@wilson.edu.]

In the lectionary, Transfiguration follows the season of Epiphany with one last display of light. The lights flare brilliantly and momentarily and then are dimmed. The gospel then sends readers on their way, on the road through Lent following Jesus toward Jerusalem and the cross.  In Mark, the story’s weight is revealed in its placement. As a key moment in the revelation of Jesus’ messianic identity,  it’s at the dead center of the gospel. In Luke , however, it’s closer to the beginning of the gospel but nevertheless marks the beginning of the dark journey southward.

Transfiguration is a glorious moment that brings not only Jesus’ momentary transformation, but also the promise of future permanent transformation. It is a harbinger of resurrection and a premonition of  the coming commonwealth of God, even as it places Jesus firmly within the traditions of Israel’s past. Old Testament references abound in the story: the trek up the mountain;  the appearance of Moses representing the law;  that of Elijah representing the great prophets; and the  dazzling face and raiment of Jesus signaling his heavenly status (a la Exodus 34 and Daniel 7).

It’s quite a spectacle –until Peter makes the remark that casts a shadow over everything. Seeing that Moses and Elijah are making their departure, Peter blurts out, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings” (v.33). Awkward!  Luke is subtle on this point, but less so than Matthew, who doesn’t have Luke’s recrimination about Peter “not knowing what he said.” Apparently, caught up in his excitement, and perhaps anxious that Moses and Elijah are not staying, Peter wants to enshrine the brilliance of the moment and dwell in its glory.  He wants to capture it and make it permanent.

So what’s the problem here? Is Peter guilty of a nostalgic longing, clinging to the great heroes and institutions of Israel’s past?  Perhaps. Is he failing to understand that Jesus is greater than Moses and Elijah? It wouldn’t be unlike Peter to make a blunder of that sort—the gospels are pretty clear that the disciples just don’t get it on a pretty regular basis. But there is also something else– hints of Peter’s desire for triumph, for victory, for a Christ of glory.  After all, just before they climb the mountain, Jesus had elicited from Peter the confession that Jesus is the Messiah of God. But then Jesus tells them that the Messiah must undergo suffering and death at the hands of the dominant political powers. And so must those who follow him.

Wait! Hold up a minute!  What was that you said? In Matthew and Mark it’s pretty clear that Peter doesn’t think much of this suffering-and-dying- Messiah business. Peter’s got Jesus’ road mapped out and it’s the road to glory— to political and social victory as well as spiritual dominion (see Acts 1:6), perhaps involving swords  and armed conflict (Luke 22:48). For Peter, transfiguration isn’t just a brief interruption of a journey into darkness, it is supposed to be the beginning of all good things to come and maybe also the immediate fulfillment of the kingdom of God. It’s a  mountain-top moment that doesn’t need to come to an end.

In the words of Barbara Ehrenreich, Peter’s a bright-sider, a committed optimist whose anxiety about what is to happen leads him to insist on looking at the bright-side of things. Brightsiders are pathologically positive, argues Ehrenreich. Here and in other places, Peter resists and objects to Jesus’ narrative of death and suffering and, not surprisingly, he dismisses the possibility of his own betrayal of Jesus. Moreover, given the choice between the disruptive exhilaration of the mountain, and the long and difficult slog of discipleship, Peter chooses disruption and excitement. Luke points out that  Peter can remain awake to take in this moment of light, even though he is really tired. But in a similar episode on the Mount of Olives (Luke 22:29-46) when the outlook is dark and grim, he and the disciples fall asleep even though Jesus  needs them awake.

Of course, the gospels love to make Peter their own blessed goofball—bound to screw up when given the opportunity. But the point is that Peter represents the best and worst of most of the pitiable disciples that have walked on that road after him. So the shadow of Peter falls over all of us. Among those of us who value tradition, temptation takes the form of nostalgia.[1] Just as Peter sought to enshrine the heroes and institutions of the past, so conservative forms of Christianity seek to fortify the old authorities and truths.

If nostalgia is dangerous, we may be more threatened by an addiction to newness that comes dressed up in the word transformation. This temptation is not about recovering an idealized past. Instead, it looks ahead to all things new and exciting and speaks of a new and improved future. New and improved forms of faith. Even a new era of religion “revolutionized by spirituality.”[2]

There is a dark side to this way of thinking about transformation. In the Christian context, we are used to thinking of it as a typically unmitigated good. Jesus is transfigured, transformed, resurrected, and we will be too. Good, right? But too often the hidden assumption is that what was there before is completely wrecked and therefore must be jettisoned. It must be re-created into something utterly new—a new person, a new way of doing religion, or even a new American spiritual landscape. In unreflective usage, transformation is disruptive and seeks quick, if not immediate, change. It doesn’t make much room for continuity or stability, nor does it require faithful endurance. It assumes that change is almost always good.

This is not to say that drastic change is completely out of place in Christian hopes about the social and political order. This is not to say that there is no room for mountain-top moments in Christian experience. Indeed, sometimes drastic change is needed and required. Mountain top moments re-energize believers for the road ahead. But it is to say that this story doesn’t authorize the addiction to newness that often characterizes American living and Christian thinking about transformation. In the life of most ordinary disciples transformation will rarely be immediate. Usually, it is to be found in the long, hard, and often tragic journey through a broken landscape.

 


[1] See Diana Butler Bass, Christianity after Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (New York: Harper Collins, 2012),224-246.

[2] Diana Butler Bass, “Is Religion Dying—or Reinventing?” The Washington Post 3/07/2012, online; also, “In Obama’s inauguration speech, a new American religion” The Washington Post  1/22/2013, online.

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