MY HEART delighted when I looked up the readings. Transfiguration! I was instantly looking forward to writing. But then I remembered: I had already written about it, for the Sunday before Lent. And in 2022. And 2021. Can there be more to say?
Well, yes. I shall never be finished with the transfiguration, because it is never finished with me. In any case, when we celebrate the festival day itself, the transfiguration comes with its own proper Old Testament reading and epistle. They give a particular commentary on the event itself. Truth emerges from the dialogue of one textual voice talking to another.
The passage from Daniel is one that clearly mattered to Jesus himself. All three Synoptic Gospels record him as referring to “the son of man coming in a cloud” (Luke), or “on the clouds” (Matthew), or “in clouds” (Mark). Daniel has introduced the “Ancient of Days”, whose throne moves on wheels of fire. This recalls one of the ways in which God manifested himself to the children of Israel when they were in the wilderness. Now, we see the other mode of divine manifestation: a cloud.
We are right to detect some pretty primitive instincts underlying these symbolic depictions. There are few things in the created order which, by their own innate properties, have the capacity to “image” God for us. What can be sufficiently powerful, mobile, instant, beautiful, and terrifying?
Fire is a natural property to ascribe to God, because it is powerful and cleansing. We notice that, first, before we turn to the Gospel and find that the Son of Man arrives “with the clouds” before the throne with its flaming wheels.
Clouds, of course, can be terrifying and destructive, too, as they — like the blazing heat of the sun — become drivers of growth and change. But they are not always so. Sometimes, they are welcome shade, or thirst-quenching water. Sometimes, they are divine justice (Isaiah 45.8).
The instinct to use the language and imagery of fire and cloud, or sun and weather, may look primitive, but reveals a sound intuition and a sharp perception about the Holy Three in whom we trust. Nothing but the uttermost extreme of language and imagination will do for the Holy Three in their majesty and power. We make do with fire and cloud because we have to. Our imagination can take us no further than what we know already.
The fire and the cloud are God’s chosen mode of manifestation; so they should be speaking to us. One of the things that I hear them saying is that we are in no fit state to encounter the Lord in the form of fire. The heat would vaporise us. The brightness would blind us.
But the cloud is different. The cloud is the way in which God veils himself before us, as he did before Moses, making it possible for us to endure abiding in his presence. The cloud makes it harder to see the whole reality of his identity (there has to be a downside), but that is the very thing that enables him — the Son of Man, the Son of God, the Word incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth and Bethlehem — also to be “God-with-us” (a name bestowed on him centuries before his incarnation, Isaiah 7.14).
Ours is not the first generation of humankind to be fascinated with “trans” matters. Things that look like they belong in one category, but then change to another category, have always been fascinating. This is because, as Aristotle (it usually is Aristotle) points out somewhere, human beings have a natural instinct to classify, to categorise. We work out what belongs with what as a way of making sense of our environment, and so feeling safer within it.
Part of our fear at things’ changing from one category to another is rooted in the confusion that may result from the overturning of a classification. When the Psalmist laments the betrayal of his “own familiar friend” (41.9), it is the “trans-gression” (the step from one category into another) that bewilders him. Anthropologists have a word for things that do not fit neatly into categories: they call them “interstitial”. Jesus the “God-human” is certainly that.