The Transfiguration of the Lord | Fr Aidan Nichols expounds the intimate connexion between the glory of the Transfiguration and the Cross.
We keep today as a feast one of the two great ‘theophanies’ or appearances of the triune God in the life of Jesus as presented by the New Testament witnesses. The other is the Baptism of Christ, with which it has certain similarities. Both feasts have been more richly explored in the Christian East. And just as the Baptism of Christ has a special cachet in the Ethiopian liturgy, so the Byzantine liturgy has gone to town on the Transfiguration. It is in the Greek East especially that today’s celebration has inspired countless icons and much liturgical poetry and where it is reckoned one of the twelve ‘Great Feasts’ of the Church.
The Byzantine Fathers stress how the Transfiguration is a manifestation of Christ’s glory, of the uncreated splendour of the Logos, which broke through on Mount Thabor, giving the disciples a momentary perception of the divine Energies shared by Father and Spirit with the Son. This is what was now reflected in the radiance of the face of Christ, on his body, and even on his clothing.
From there it may seem a natural move to contrast with this a Western Catholicism centred on – some would say more unkindly, obsessed by – the Cross: the Passion and Death of Christ, the penalty exacted by divine justice for the sins of the world. And yet when we put the various Gospel accounts together, we soon see it isn’t as simple as that. The topic of the conversational exchange between Jesus, Moses and Elijah, is, as St Luke tells us, Jesus’ forthcoming Passion. Moses and Elijah embody the holy warfare of the struggle with evil (with Pharaoh in the one case, with Jezebel and the gods of Canaan in the other). So they are suitable presences for the events of the Last Days: our Lord’s final confrontation with Satan, with sin and with death. And when, as St Matthew and St Mark report, Jesus goes on, after the vision has passed, to predict his approaching death and to caution the disciples not tell what they have seen until his sufferings are completed, what does this signify if not an intimate connexion between the glory and the Cross?
So what is that intimate connexion? The glory of the Son, as of the Father and the Holy Spirit, is ultimately the glory of love: the sovereign yet sacrificial love which not only saved the world in the events that founded our religion but also made the world in the first place when God shared being with what was not himself. And this love, furthermore, not only made (and saved) the world but also constitutes the world’s Maker in his own Trinitarian life before time was – thanks to the mutual self-giving of the divine Persons. As the poet Hopkins puts it, the life of the Trinity is everlasting sacrifice.
Without the Cross, then, we can’t interpret correctly the glory of the Transfiguration. It is on Calvary that we find the supreme illustration of the Father’s words, ‘This is my beloved Son’. One sometimes sees crucifixes where the artist, to show Christ reigning gloriously from the Tree, has given him a crown to wear. But really the crucifix needs no crown – the mangled limbs of the Saviour are already his glorious regalia. The Resurrection, when it comes, will not cancel out the Crucifixion. Instead it will display the truth of the Crucifixion, its grace and its power.