Mysteries and then some
People love a good mystery. In 2015, there were over 300,000 different books published in the United States alone, with the largest category (over thirty-four thousand books) being mystery and suspense., The best-selling of these, The Girl on a Train by Paula Hawkins, sold nearly two million copies according to the Nielsen BookScan ratings, intimating that we love a good tale of suspense, intrigue, and mystery.
History, however, has proven to write its own share of mysteries and none stranger than the Dancing Plagues of the Middle Ages. John C. Waller, a historian at Michigan State University, wrote this about the plague of 1518,
Perched alongside the Rhine River on the western edge of the Holy Roman Empire, Strasbourg was a busy trading city, its fairs frequented by merchants from across the continent (Figure 1). Sometime in mid-July 1518 a lone woman stepped into one of its narrow streets and began a dancing vigil that was to last four or even 6 days in succession. Within a week another 34 had joined the dance. And by the end of August, one chronicler asserts, 400 people had experienced the madness, dancing wildly, uncontrollably around the city.
As the dance turned epidemic, troubled nobles and burghers consulted local physicians. Having excluded astrological and supernatural causes, the members of the medical fraternity declared it to be a ‘natural disease’ caused by ‘hot blood’. This was orthodox physic, consistent with Galen’s view that bloody fluxes could overheat the brain, causing anger, rashness and madness. But the response of the authorities was neither to bleed nor to provide cooling diets. Instead they prescribed ‘more dancing’. To this end they cleared two guildhalls and the outdoor grain market and they even had a wooden stage constructed opposite the horse fair. To these locations the dancers were taken so they could dance freely and uninterrupted. The victims would only recover their minds, said the authorities, if they persisted both day and night with their frantic movements. And to facilitate this supposed cure, the authorities next paid for musicians and professional dancers to keep the afflicted moving.”
That dancing plague ended in the same year it began and a combination of Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment brought about theological and scientific understanding that flew in the face of such practices and they seemed to end, at least in that manner. However, no one knows for certain what caused or cured it.
The Mystery of Transfiguration
Some things in life are simply mysterious, they are beyond the realm of our consideration and to try and simplify them down to our humanity degrades the mystery and its holiness. One such mystery categorized in this way is that of the Transfiguration of Jesus. It is a moment the writer of Luke captures as a revelation of divinity for humanity or at least that is the common conception. M.C. Steenberg wrote of the event,
“The mystery of Christ’s transfiguration on the mountain is among the most potent moments of divine revelation recorded in the Scriptures, yet one with reference to which many hearers — historical as well as contemporary — feel a certain air of separation. ‘This is an event of Christ, for Christ. It is not an event for me.’”
He goes on to write that the truth of the Transfiguration, as he sees it, connects this moment to us in both a mysterious and practical way. German theologian Rudolph Otto speaks of something he calls the mysterium tremendum or the mystery of the that which is ‘hidden and esoteric, that beyond conception or understanding’; “It cannot be ‘taught’, it must be ‘awakened’ from the Spirit” or as Donald Luther writes, “We long for the mysterion. We sense, we know, some have experienced indelibly the elusive presence.”
This mysterium tremendum is what Peter, James, and John are encountering in the Transfiguration story. It is a moment beyond their understanding and comprehension, beyond the scope of their worldview or perspective. The writer of each of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) tries to convey this idea of holiness, wonder, and awe in their own way and I believe they do to help us seek the experience and live into it ourselves. It is an invitation to see this mysterium tremendum in our way and our circumstances. How is it then that we should view this story of Jesus glorification before the disciples? How do we embrace this as a part of our own story that we share and encourage others to engage?
Transfiguration is a change
The word ‘transfigure’ is not in the text. And in the story as Luke tells it, the disciples are said to be ‘weighed down with sleep,’ as they will later do at Gethsemane. They do not see the transfiguration itself but rather the results of it: they “saw his glory” (Luke 9:32). This gets to the important aspect that Luke is conveying. The event on the mountain in Luke is a peculiar kind of miracle in Luke. Jesus’ face and clothes change and become bright like a flash of lightning – something like Moses’ face in Exodus 34:29-35. Three disciples see Moses and Elijah standing with Jesus “clothed with heavenly splendor” (Luke 9:31). Moses and Elijah – often seen as representative of the Law and the Prophets – discuss with Jesus his “departure” (in Greek, exodus).”
Michal Beth Dinkler writes,
“How should we understand Jesus’ identification as the “Son of God”? Many students of Luke consider this to be confirmation of Jesus’ unique Christological status. But in Luke’s context, the language of divine sonship is not unique. In the Hebrew Bible (with which Luke is intimately familiar), divine sonship language appears in reference to kings as God’s chosen representatives. In the Roman Empire, the emperor was typically divinized after his death; he would not usually be called a god during his lifetime, but rather, a “son of a god.” In Luke’s context, then, Jesus being God’s son is a claim to legitimacy. It means he is chosen and commissioned to carry out God’s will, to enact God’s kingdom here on earth.”
What I see in this goes beyond the obvious Christological explanations of Jesus being God and being lifted before men that they can see him for who he is. As Dinkler says, “the language of divine sonship is not unique” but goes back to a long tradition in Judaism as well as other religions of the region including the Greek and Roman emperor worship cults. I think there is something else at work here, something deeper on the level of being. I think there is a change here, Jesus going from a human prophet to one shown as glorified by God. I think this idea of change is one of the major themes behind the story of transfiguration, a story of seeing Jesus become more than they thought he was. The reason for this, as Dinkler points out, is to live into the call of God’s Kingdom on earth, to be and bring a heavenly existence to an earthly place.
Transfiguration is changing from something to something
A colleague from a previous church once spoke of a movement, “If they call themselves the Emerging Movement what are they emerging from and what are they emerging to.” So, the idea of change in the passage shows us more: that change is from something to something. Jesus is being presented in the story as becoming altogether different, more than the being he was to them before. Jesus is changing before them and in that change they are seeing not only something that God is doing to/for Jesus but also the change God can and will make for them. What is the change?
It is the change from profane to holy, from being limited to this world and its tropes to a being in the image of God and living after the Way of Jesus. It is the first stage of change on the path to being a new creation, a new person after the fashion of Jesus. Theologian Fred Craddock put it this way,
“The conversation between Moses, Elijah, and Jesus is one of Jesus forthcoming ‘exodus’, what may be a spiritual example of the path to be followed as disciples, a path to leave the way of life and being that the disciples are still hanging onto in some ways and embrace the ‘glory’ of the path of God that Jesus walks. “One thing is clear: Jesus and his three disciples have an experience of God.”
I believe what Craddock refers to as the ‘an experience of God’ is the goal of all who engage the path of Jesus and the person of God. This is the change we are talking about when we say changing from something to something. This is what we are seeking in understanding and living into transfiguration for ourselves.
If Jesus is our example, the example from Transfiguration is radical transformation into a new way of being, a way that imitates Jesus.
I came across an interesting article this week by Charles Carlston who wrote,
“AMONG the many possible interpretations of the Transfiguration, one of the more common is that it was originally a resurrection appearance and was eventually transferred to the life of Jesus as a transfiguration story.”
This was an interesting idea because it speaks to the ideas of transfiguration and resurrection being tied together as narratives of change, intended to encourage us to follow the example. An example of this is in the story of the mother of James and John asking Jesus for seats at his right and left hand for her sons. What she was asking for was a place of honor for her sons in the perceived earthly kingdom they expected Jesus to set up in opposition to the Roman government as their ‘Messiah’. In response, consider the question Jesus asks of the disciples and by extension all of us who choose to follow: “…Can you drink from the cup that I’m about to drink from?” We most often interpret this considering the impending crucifixion but I think we can also see this as a challenge. The challenge is this: can you live into the life I have lived and the ministry I have performed to claim those places of honor? Are you willing to live as people who are so devoted to the Way, so set on following that nothing, not even death itself, will deter you? A few chapters later in Matthew’s story this idea comes to life vividly in the Last Supper as Jesus blesses the cup and says, “Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven.” Each time we gather around the table of communion we are not only participating the idea of being with Jesus in the Presence of God but we are also saying in effect, “We too are willing to drink the cup. We too are willing to walk the path wherever it leads. We too are willing to offer ourselves to be transformed and used for the good of the Kingdom of God.
See the change of Jesus and accept the invitation to be changed. Be changed from one who follows the paths that lead to pain and separation from God to one who follows in the Way of Jesus. Let the example of transfiguration and resurrection be a radical transformation into a new way of being, a way that imitates Jesus, amen
Carlston, Charles Edwin. “Transfiguration and Resurrection.” Journal of Biblical Literature (Society of Biblical Literature) 80, no. 3 (Sep 1961): 233-240.
Craddock, Fred. Luke: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Lousiville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.
Dinkler, Michal Beth. Working Preacher. 2017. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3005 (accessed 02 16, 2017).
Luther, Donald J. “The Mystery of the Transfiguration: Luke 9:28-36 (37-43).” Word & World 21, no. 1 (Dec 2001): 92-102.
Otto, Rudolph. The Idea of the Holy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1950.
Steenberg, M.C. “Two-Natured Man: An Anthropology of Transfiguration.” Pro Ecclesia 14, no. 4 (Fall 2005): 413-432.
Waller, John C. “In a spin: the Mysterious Dancing Epidemic of 1518.” Endeavour 32, no. 3 (Sept. 2008): 117-121.
 (Waller 2008), p.117
 (Steenberg 2005), p.414
 (Otto 1950), p.13
 (Otto 1950), p.60
 (Luther 2001), p.94
 (Luther 2001), p.95
 (Dinkler 2017)
 (Dinkler 2017)
 (Craddock 1990), p.133-135
 (Carlston 1961), p.233
 Matthew 26:27-28