Transfigured? – so what changes?
One of the puzzles for those of us used to watching news documentaries and reading intended non-fiction as history is the question of why in much of the Bible there seem abrupt moves to convey truth by slipping into fantasy or even parable.
Perhaps I need to lay my cards on the table and admit I prefer to follow the group of scholars who assume that such assumptions of symbolism were common to story-telling of the time and for example this might then explain why in effect the gospel writers teach that Jesus shows us that through his witness that Heaven and Earth can be seen as intersecting. Some here will no doubt remember that in the accounts of the Baptism of Jesus a very similar symbolism is invoked. There too, God and Humanity are presented as coming together.
For those to whom the gospels were originally addressed, the early readers of the Gospel of Matthew would have been seeing things that we are less able to notice. The prophets for example had predicted that at the climax of history Moses and Elijah would have been expected to be reappearing. What better way to preempt the Easter story that having such figures appear on the mountainside. A form of transfiguration is also stressed in Paul’s writings when he predicts that we shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye at the sound of the last trump. (1 Corinthians 15)
Today’s gospel story of the Transfiguration of Jesus is doubly curious in that although there are strong similarities with the same dramatic story in the gospel of Mark – yet sufficient differences remain for us to question even if the same event is being described. Perhaps you have already noted that in both stories, despite some features being the same, in neither story does the eye witness type record from Matthew and Mark include among the characters either of the writers as being present.
If either account did happen to be intended to come across as eye-witness reporting, the best we might suppose is that it was a second-hand version of what had actually happened.
We should acknowledge that the setting of this particular event on Mount Tabor would give the mountain as overlooking the plain of Megiddo. Those who prefer to assume the last book of the Bible important as a literal prediction of “the last Battle” assume that this will be the actual setting for the final confrontation between the armies of Good and Evil.
A literalist might possibly be confused as to why the differences in Mark and Matthew exist. Those anxious to see Jesus as a man of God-like wonder might be equally puzzled when despite the heights of miracle and transfiguration being achieved, just how quickly grim reality and unhappiness return to the story.
At the same time this roller coaster story of Jesus and those with him on the mountain top is very true to the nature of human experience. For those of us who are prepared to seek the heights there are indeed experiences of wonder and joy to be had, yet in the real world it is just as true that there would be few for whom their mountain top experiences have led to subsequent lives of joy and tranquil existence. In most people’s real world, unwelcome and even frightening expected plunges in to the depths are part of the human experience.
In effect, if we follow the story, hanging on to the past experiences and refusing to move on, may well be what Peter was trying to do when he is reported as wanting to provide a more permanent shelter for the leaders of his faith on the mountain top.. Although in this Matthew is kinder than Mark in the reported response to Peter (perhaps because at the time of writing Matthew’s gospel Peter has been given a clear leadership role in the developing Church) the fact is that we all need to see that we need to live in the present and not try too strongly to live in the past.
If we stay with the Bible account, then look past today’s reading, we would read on to find that Jesus and his close disciple friends who had been with him (recorded in this gospel version as Peter James and John) having to descend in a cloud. As if the cloud wasn’t enough, Jesus then encounters the father of the Epileptic boy. It may only be symbolic yet we should relate to Jesus’ frustration when he learns that the rest of the disciples have unable to help. “How much longer must I put up with you?” we read in one translation.
When we look at typical church settings today where the simple philosophy of helping one’s neighbor is often almost lost in the trivia of day to day Church activity, perhaps the gospel writer understands that Jesus’ reaction may need to be heard for future generations…even our own?
I have no wish to enrage the readers who prefer to insist that all the stories about Jesus are expected to be assumed to be accurately reported, but in this instance I wonder if we can learn more if we assume this story to have elements of symbolism.
If we can bring ourselves to admit writers like Matthew are best interpreted as being happy to use symbolism to make his point, yet far from seeing this as a fault I wonder if that also makes him more credible. He certainly appears to enjoy making his stories live with more than a little melodrama and I confess to enjoying his story telling gift. For example later, after the events of Easter, when Matthew talks of the resurrection he has the graves opening! For those of you who want to check that out for yourselves, in Matthew Ch 27 verses 52 and 53 Matthew talks of the saintly dead in Jerusalem alive and well and wandering the streets on Easter day. The fact that no one else at the time noticed (or at least recorded) this remarkable phenomenon I leave for your own reflection, but for me it makes perfect sense that Matthew was using poetic licence, anxious that everyone noted that Jesus was not done away with by the act of crucifixion.
Again we might remind ourselves Matthew might well have been alone in his version of the transfiguration but he adds a very important psychological point. The words of Jesus to his terrified disciples, prostate on the ground, are his words of challenge to anyone who would accept the challenge to be his disciples today. “Get up and do not be afraid.” This is another way I guess of saying by implication to his followers, “there is work to be done”. Notice Jesus did not say what still remains to do …but there is certainly a strong implication that we too as followers should face what is to come as bearers and as (hopefully) living examples of his message in a now fast changing world.
The transfiguration story places the emphasis on Jesus himself, and this is expected. But in terms of his followers there is also some subsequent change. We may not be free from some gritty and at times unpleasant experiences back down from the mountain top, but if we choose to take this story seriously it gives us at least a partially transfigured starting-point. And why not be truthful. If some of the original disciples found it difficult to follow through later when times got hard we are not necessarily going to do better with our own realities.
I guess then the real question is not so much how accurately the gospels report Jesus’ transfiguration, nor simply in reading on to see how this transfiguration fitted in to the story of the development of those who started as pretty ordinary disciples. Rather the real question for us is whether or not – and to what extent – we are changed by what we learn?