Six days later, Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John, and brought them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; and His garments became radiant and exceedingly white, as no launderer on earth can whiten them. Elijah appeared to them along with Moses; and they were talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tabernacles, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to answer; for they became terrified. Then a cloud formed, overshadowing them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is My beloved Son, listen to Him!” All at once they looked around and saw no one with them anymore, except Jesus alone.
– Mark 9: 2-8.
On this day, both eastern and western Christian churches celebrate the transfiguration of the messiah. According to tradition, the mountain Jesus ascended with his three disciples was mount Tabor. It was to this place that the prophetess Deborah ordered Barak the son of Abinoam to gather ten thousand men, from whence to attack the army of Sisera, the general of Jabin king of Canaan, and thereby deliver God’s people from their oppressors; to this place that the prophet Samuel would send the newly anointed King Saul to receive bread and wine from those going up to their offerings at Bethel, from whence to join the company of prophets in ecstasy; to this place that the messiah would ascend with his disciples, the whiteness of his raiment revealing him as the son of man and ancient of days spoken by the prophet Daniel.
In each case, we find an ascent, a charge, a descent, its fulfillment. Barak goes up at the behest of the prophetess, and comes down to deliver the Israelites from an enemy army; Saul rises to Samuel’s anointing as king, then stoops to the company of the prophets before taking up his throne; the disciples rise at the command of their master, invested with authority by the voice of the Father. For the time, they descend stupefied, soon to meet the scandal of the crucifixion. They shall soon enough give their lives carrying out the great commission.
In each case, separation serves as a prerequisite for carrying out an essential task, be it the destruction of evil forces, the manifestation of kingly glory, the conversion of the world. Separation is necessary: strength is drawn from what is given therein, be it a vantage point, an anointing, an epiphany. Separation is not self-sufficient: Barak must descend to slay; Saul, to rule; the disciples’ plea to set up tents is rejected.
The Greek word used to describe Jesus’ transformation is μεταμορφόω, literally meaning ‘to cross over into another form.’ The glory of the Messiah is witnessed by and overshadows that of the law and the prophets, represented in the persons of Moses and Elijah. What Christ became before the disciples’ eyes is something thoroughly different from what he was before, as different as the butterfly from the caterpillar. The apostle will use this same word to describe the transformation wrought by God in the disciple. ‘But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord.’ (II Cor 3:18).
With Peter, James, and John, we find a model of Christian engagement with the polis it should transform. It begins with the obedience of faith, manifested in glory, impressed on the mind, and thereby transforming the believer in his daily life into something truly new. It does not begin getting bogged down in dialogue at the foot of the mountain, lest in the chatter it miss the sight of the very thing worth proclaiming. Nor does it nourish the escapism of staying atop the peak. From on high it draws all men to itself. In their roles as apostles, Peter and the others would not merely change the hearts of individuals: the would effect a deep-rooted transformation of every aspect of society.
Time and again, such transformations, both creative and destructive, would occur on this very day across time and space: in 1787, sixty proofs of the U. S. Constitution are first delivered to the Constitutional convention being held in Philadelphia; in 1806, the last Holy Roman Emperor abdicates his throne; in 1914, Serbia and Austria respectively declare war on Germany and Russia precipitating the start of World War I; in 1945, the United States drops the bomb ‘little boy’ on Hiroshima, instantly killing 70,000 people; in 1965, Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act into law.
From time to time, such transformations will come – slowly, then all at once, in Hemingway’s phrase. If we wish these to be positive, we cannot avoid committing ourselves to intentional acting in accord with love of neighbor and the spirit of God revealed in the Christ. This is our choice: between accepting the divine image, on the one hand, and pursuing a humanity cut off from God, on the other, with all the destruction that entails. Awaiting the return of the bridegroom, we keep our lamps trimmed. ‘Be not conformed to this world; but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of god’ (Rom 12:2). This engagement does not erase the distinction between the church and the world, but ensures that the distinctive, antagonistic character of the latter should ever pass away as it becomes more animated by the spirit of God. The blood of the martyrs would be the seed of the church; but that seed would be sown everywhere in the public houses.
In our roles as citizens, as in other roles, we thus must aim at the transformation of the public sphere in accord with goodness revealed by God. The question of what this good is cannot be marred by skepticism and worries about impositions of values, for such impositions are inevitable in any case. It is not from disagreements papered over by slogans, but from separation in holiness, nearness to the principles and source of the varied Christian forms of life, that genuine societal unity should arise. It is not from quiet capitulation to the spirit of this world, but from radical fidelity that genuine social transformation should come.