Thursday, 24 August 2017

The Transfiguration Year A 2017

Maryland, founded in the early 17th century and named after the French consort of Charles I--Henrietta Maria, is considered to be the birthplace of religious freedom in America as it was intended as a refuge for persecuted Catholics of England. 1829 is generally taken to be the chief moment marking the emancipation of Catholics in both the UK and Ireland. In 1955, Rosa Park, in defying the order to give up her seat to a "white" person, inaugurated the modern civil rights movement.

The founding of a state, the Act of Parliament granting freedom of worship and the civil rights movement are just a few examples representing the exciting breakthrough in the evolution of freedom. And, they might just help us appreciate better the feast of the Transfiguration.

Firstly, what is the Transfiguration? As a theological event, it is regarded as a turning point in the ministry of Jesus. Just before ascending Mount Tabor, Peter had confessed the Messiahship of Jesus and that He is the son of the living God. On the mountain, it culminates in an experience which according to Matthew parallels the revelation on Mount Sinai. Moses representing the Law and Elijah standing for the prophets both had ascended Mount Sinai/Horeb to consort with God. Now here they are again on a mountain speaking to the God-made-man, thereby confirming the confession of Peter that the Messiah is indeed Jesus and foretelling His impending Passion. From Matthew's perspective, the Transfiguration fulfils the Old Testament longing for the Messiah.

Within this theological narrative, Matthew proceeds to describe the Transfiguration in vivid details--His face shone and His clothes became as white as the light. The question is, what exactly did the Apostles experience? The truth is that we inhabit a demythologised world where magic and fantasy have more credibility than any miracles connected with Jesus. The demythologisation of scripture means that Jesus did not rise from the dead. An explanation for the resurrection is that He rose in the hearts of people. The multiplication of loaves nothing more than a persuasion of the crowd to share their food with each other. Or, the Transubstantiation is not a change in objective reality but rather it symbolises a change in subjective appreciation, hence Transignification. Seen in this context of a demythologised world, the Transfiguration was not really an experience of the supernatural. It might just be one of those interior experiences of the Apostles much akin to what we call mass hysteria, group hallucination or auto-suggestion.

The point here is not to desacralise the experience but rather to read the Transfiguration as more than an event that confirms the confession of Peter or portends Christ's coming Passion. The transformed body of Jesus is a foretaste of and also an anticipation of our appearance in glory. Eucharistic Prayer III reminds us that "from the earth, He will raise up in the flesh those who have died and transform our lowly bodies after the pattern of His glorious body".

This supernatural event allows us to appreciate better the notion of liberation. Earlier on, I enumerated the founding of a state, the emancipation from restrictions placed on religious belief and the genesis of the modern civil rights movement. It would appear that progress is an inexorable march to greater freedom. But, what is liberation for? If the Transfiguration is the model for this liberating progress, then liberation is freedom from the tyranny of sin. However, when framed in the glossary of the pursuit of happiness[1], life and liberty etc, the focus shifts to an almost economic expression and it is concretised through the language of choice—the choice to pursue the best possible way to happiness. However, note that the liberation envisaged by the framers of the Constitution for the 13 Colonies takes its reference from who we are--that we have been created in the image and likeness of God and therefore we possess inalienable rights. Thus, it makes sense that caste, creed or colour should not determine how one is treated.

Whereas for now, the notion of liberation has taken its inspiration not from the movement from sin to grace, that is, from who we are to who we are supposed to be. Instead, its inspiration is firmly grounded in who we want to be. We "should be free" to create ourselves according to our image and likeness and even God is to be shaped according to our fads and fancies. Sadly, this self-referential genius is aided by an increasing technicalisation of life. Now, at the push of a button we are able to "solve" all problems. This process has contributed to the distancing of the notion of freedom from sin meaning that freedom is no longer anchor on the notions of good and right. Instead, all that matters is that “solution” and not salvation has become the goal of human existence. This is confirmed by the proliferation of pharmacies. The ubiquity of this institution of cures is also indicative of the therapeutic culture we have become. In therapy, we are concerned with cures (read: solution) and thus liberation is a form of cure in which we are freed from sickness rather than from sin. God is no longer necessary for our salvation. We are our own saviour with a result that we seldom think of freedom as freedom from sin.

The idea of liberation, that is, the process of moving towards greater freedom, is important. But, this freedom which we prize so much must find its goal in the salvation that is brought about by the Lord. A desire for this salvation would require a disengagement from sin so as to fulfil what the Preface suggests: He, in revealing His glory, might show how in the Body of the whole Church is to be fulfilled what so wonderfully shone forth first in its Head.

[1] The idea that freedom is for the pursuit of happiness is never absolute. Happiness is but a foretaste of heaven. But, in a demythologised world, where heaven is situated on earth, then freedom is unhinged from its celestial mooring. Everyone should be free to do anything and everything. Take a look at the expanding phenomenon of the gated community. The strength of our security is not augmented by the ghettoisation of our security meaning that we are not better protected by the increased in armed security. Gatedness is a false indication of security. The British Bobbies no carry guns and why is that so? The British recognise that violence against an officer of the law is taboo. Taboo whose function is to protect society (and sadly sometimes to preserve the status quo as well), in a demythologised culture, is now considered to be a crimp on style, meaning that, taboo upsets the exercise of choice and the freedom to be. But, taboos play a role in directing freedom to its original intention which is to enable Man to be who he is supposed to be.