by Michael Shelley
Associate Professor of Christian-Muslim Studies; Director of A Center for Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice
One of the blessings of a long residence in another country is the opportunity to travel and visit many of its historical sites, some multiple times, and in a more leisurely way than tourists. I had the privilege of living in Egypt for many years, a country with a long and rich history, abundantly blessed with places to visit. There are, of course, those well-known attractions like the National Museum in central Cairo, the Great Pyramids on the western edge of the city, the ancient burial grounds at Saqqara, site of the Step Pyramid, and Luxor, site of one of the ancient capitals with its temples and the valleys where kings and queens were entombed. One site less commonly visited but still a favorite destination of many tourists is the traditional site of Mt. Sinai in the southern part of the Sinai Peninsula.
Located at the foot of this mountain is St. Catherine’s Monastery, belonging to the Greek Orthodox Church, built in the sixth century. Here you can visit the chapel said to mark the spot where Aaron placed the golden calf, which the people worshipped as they impatiently waited for Moses to descend from the mountain. If you have the right contacts, you might be able to enter the monastery’s library and view some of the precious manuscripts housed there. You can visit the Charnel House and view the bones of deceased monks. After death, their bodies are buried in the monastery’s small cemetery for a short time, long enough for the flesh to rot away. Then their bones are dug up, skulls piled in one cage, limbs and vertebrae in another. It’s kind of grim place. You can visit the spot where God first spoke to Moses through the Burning Bush. You can climb the mountain Moses is thought to have climbed to receive the Ten Commandments. Many visitors get up somewhere between 1:00 and 3:00 in the morning to climb to the top to see the sun rise. If you’re physically challenged or don’t want to walk the whole way to the top, there are local entrepreneurs who are more than ready to rent you a camel and lead you to the top. And if you choose to walk from the beginning, there are others waiting along the way to give you an opportunity to reconsider.
As you descend the mountain, there are several spots along the way from which you have a beautiful view of the monastery sitting at the foot of the mountain. A countless number of artists and photographers have captured this spectacular scene on canvas and film.
As I recall, I visited St. Catherine’s Monastery four times during my years in Egypt. Each time, I especially looked forward to visiting the Church of the Transfiguration. It has a fabulous collection of icons and other works of art. For me, however, the jewel is the splendid sixth-century mosaic of the Transfiguration in the vault of the apse above the altar (a slide of which is above us here). (Source: http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/catherines2-49.htm. Accessed February 10, 2013.)
This mosaic contains helpful clues for interpreting the Transfiguration story. Here we can read Scripture in the company of an inanimate other, which is very suggestive. Figures in exquisite shades of blue, green and red stand out against a background of gold. Jesus is in the center. Off his left shoulder—to the right as you look at the mosaic—is the figure of Moses, right hand raised pointing toward Jesus. On the opposite side, off Jesus’ right shoulder, is the figure of Elijah, right hand raised pointing toward Jesus. The meaning, of course, is that the law and the prophets point to this one. This is the expected one.
But there’s something peculiar, something unexpected about this one, and that’s represented in the mosaic by the nimbus behind his head, within which is a cross. Here we may be reminded of where the Transfiguration story comes in the Synoptic Gospels. It’s the same for all three, but I’ll refer to Luke, because that’s where today’s text comes from.
Earlier in chapter 9, we find Peter confessing that Jesus is the Messiah of God. This is followed by the first of Jesus’ passion predictions, the announcement that he is headed for suffering and death. In the St. Catherine mosaic, Moses and Elijah represent the law and the prophets, who with the heavenly voice, confirm that Jesus is what Peter has declared him to be, the Messiah of God. But more than that, Jesus is what he said he is, a suffering Messiah. God is pleased to say that this one is God’s beloved. This is the one to listen to.
Also in the mosaic, James and John, kneeling, one on each side of Jesus, Peter lying prostrate at his feet, look to Jesus, as if to say, authentic Christian witness, based on the apostolic witness, proclaims the glorified Christ, but not to the exclusion of the Christ who suffered. That witness is modeled by Paul, who appears in one of the medallions along the upper row. He wrote to the Corinthians:
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:1-2).
In the same letter Paul boldly proclaimed the resurrection, but he would not do that to the exclusion of the cross, as foolish and scandalous as the cross seemed.
Yet, the Transfiguration story, as rightly portrayed in the St. Catherine mosaic, says something else to us. The story follows Jesus’ teaching about the necessity of suffering and even the possibility of death for his followers. As Luke has it, Jesus said:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it (Luke 9:24).
If Jesus’ followers wish to share his future glory, they must be prepared to participate in his suffering.
Here it’s important to note one final feature in the St. Catherine mosaic: Jesus’ right hand is raised in front of his chest in what I take to be a sign of peace. On the one hand, the Transfiguration was an endorsement of the path Jesus was walking. On the other hand, it was also an anticipation of the glory that would be his, the glory that would come after his suffering and death, the majesty and authority that would be his.
All three Synoptic Gospels report in slightly different ways that the three disciples with Jesus were overcome with fear. Only in Matthew’s version, however, does Jesus say to Peter, James and John, “do not be afraid” (Matthew 17:7). These, according to Matthew, were the first words Jesus spoke to the women near the empty tomb following his resurrection (28:10). Thus, in Matthew, the “do not be afraid” of the Transfiguration story anticipates the one who will say after his resurrection those same calming words, plus “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20).
I suspect, however, that we shouldn’t make too much of this difference in detail between the Synoptic Gospels. Perhaps Matthew knew an historical detail the others didn’t, or he made a creative connection the others didn’t see between Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration and the resurrected Jesus. After all, in Luke (24:36), and also John (20:19), the resurrected Jesus says to his followers, “Peace be with you.”
For all the gospel writers, the chains of death no longer hold Jesus; he is alive and reigns in glory, a glory we will share. This enables us to stand firm and with courage in our discipleship. It enables us to stand in the midst of our broken world and participate in God’s mission: to work for reconciliation and healing, to work to overcome ignorance, oppression, poverty, starvation, dehumanization, enmity and strife. Where such is accomplished glimpses of God’s new creation can be seen. A part of the world, for a moment, is transfigured. There divine light shines in our midst, rays of hope in the midst of suffering and death.
This gesture of peace in the mosaic communicates in a simple way strength and encouragement to persevere. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “No matter what you encounter, don’t be afraid, don’t despair; I am with you.” It communicates that Jesus is the expected one with whom God is well-pleased. It witnesses to the fact that God’s purposes will not be thwarted. Even in the midst of suffering, God rules and is at work accomplishing God’s purposes. Indeed, the ministry of Jesus and the cross tells us that is the most certain place where God is at work. And, where God is we also may dare to be.