Frances writes on the Readings of the Feast of the Transfiguration which is celebrated on Sunday this year :_ Apocalyptic language is the most misunderstood and frequently distorted of sacred language. There was President Bush’s megalomaniac idea of a US divinely appointed mission during the Gulf War to control the planet with an all-American singing, dancing super state and now we have Mr Trump and his rhetoric which similarly speaks of power, and above all control, with his walls and other daft ideas. Others misinterpret it in an-other worldly manner, thereby making a rigid division between the Jesus of human hunger, thirst and action, and the Jesus of the miracles, passion, death and resurrection; thereby turning him into a supernatural, magical figure. Such a dualism is equally as mistaken as that of American Presidents, both obscure and cut us off from contact from the graciousness of God, who wills to share his being, his identity and his life with us.
So what are we to make of Daniel (7:9-10.13-14) and Matthew’s apocalyptic Gospel, (17:1-9) in particular the account of the Transfiguration of Christ? Israel used apocalyptic language like that of Daniel (not incidentally written in the 7th century BC during the Babylonian captivity, but some 150 years before the birth of Jesus) as a mode of political comment. The story of Daniel is about the confrontation of good and evil, and Israel, so frequently occupied and plundered by different bully-boy nations. In Jesus’ day it was the Romans; and his listeners would have found in these texts of the overthrow of evil beasts and the reign of a ‘figure in white’, a promise of the triumph of good and the overthrow of evil. Daniel dreams of a ‘Son of Man’, a super hero, victorious through suffering. Daniel himself, like Jesus, was a confronter of rulers, the Babylonian kings providing a thin veneer in this story, hiding his polemic against the native Hasmonean priest-kings of his day who controlled Israel and had become increasingly corrupt, notwithstanding the purity of their forebears who gained a brief 70 years of independence for the nation. Jesus was also in conflict with the Temple, its High priests, the Law, and the corrupt Jewish monarchy. Daniel suffered, at one time thrown to the lions for his confrontation with the kings, but was protected by God and survived; he stands like his ancestor prophets for Israel’s faithfulness, and calls the nation to devotion to God. By the time of Jesus this literature was immensely popular, and well known for shaping the expectations of many in Israel, from revolutionary groups, to quietist separatists like the Essenes of the Dead Sea who believed that only by complete separation from the corrupt contemporary Jewish society could redemption be found. Jesus seems to have combined a number of these traits, opposing the ruling elite, but appealing to the common man, with a conviction that in him God was finally to give himself completely to the world. Jesus did not call for any revolutionary overthrow of existing society, nor revolt against the Roman occupiers, for he saw, as did Daniel, that it was futile to look to become one more in a long line of super-thugs of limited duration condemned ultimately to decline and overthrow.
Instead Jesus was transfigured on the mountain in dazzling white, mirror of the white one of Daniel, the ancient of days, who gives all to the Son of Man; thus showing his complete identity with the Father. He appears talking with Moses and Elijah, the giver of the Law and the prophet of God’s final promises to Israel; and he is acclaimed by God as his ‘Beloved Son’. Our account from Matthew’s Gospel is inserted after the first of Jesus’ predictions of his passion and death. Jesus has made clear his identity as the final, the definitive, Son of man foreseen by Daniel. In Daniel, the Son of man is proclaimed by divine power as the one true king, and given eternal dominion over the whole earth. In our Gospel, God himself proclaims him ‘Beloved Son’; but Jesus instructs his disciples to hide all knowledge of the event until he has risen from the dead, and the divine voice demands they ‘listen’ to him. It seems that the Transfiguration is a hint of future glory for Jesus, and a comfort and consolation for the apostles in the midst of adversity. This is not without fear, as we see from their reaction, and they needs must still puzzle out who and what he is. For Jesus it seems that this encounter with Moses and Elijah is to be connected with his radical challenge to current interpretations of Law and Prophetic writing, for it was his confrontation with interpretations of Law: healing on the Sabbath; teaching outside the Temple and synagogue; his welcoming of sinners and foreigners, and his turning of his back on Jerusalem and its temple, which brought about his death. Jesus, throughout Matthew’s Gospel, is described as a scandal to the Jewish authorities, and it was this that provoked his death. He was too radical, outrageous in his understanding of God, and in his being incarnate, God’s man. Jesus challenged the belief that Israel alone was the chosen people and that its hierarchy held a monopoly on the truth.
Jesus was, and continues to be, a challenge who disturbs the belief that the status quo is the right way for things to be. His understanding of Judaism and its practices got him killed, so his Transfiguration was not a cosy premonition of how things would be, albeit he is seen in glory; but is a map of the hard road to the achievement of that glory, a road we must follow too. As 2 Peter (1:16-19) says, those moments of insight are to be depended upon, for they are “a lamp for lighting a way through the dark until the dawn comes and the morning star rises in your minds”. Clearly, for this writer, those touches of glory, which come to all of us in this life, are genuine moments of consolation, as well as confrontation and challenge, as we wrestle with the trials of life.
Apocalyptic was never intended as some divine ‘buck-passing’ exercise, or for complacency. It is about God sustaining our hope and trust in himself. Like Peter, we will frequently fail to get our heads round the actual event at the time, and it may be a while before other events help us to see the significance of things; but we can live with the promise of the dawn, awaiting that morning star who came back from the dead. Perhaps then, apocalyptic is given to us precisely to cut us all down to size, enabling us to recognise that God is God, and that we are simply humans. But, in his grace, we are humans destined to share his life, but it must be on God’s terms