The Transfiguration

Today the Church commemorates the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ on Mount Tabor. In honor of this, here is a passage from the accomplished New Testament scholar Dale Allison comparing the account of the transfiguration and the account of the passion in the Gospel of Matthew:

I have mentioned both the transfiguration of Jesus and his passion in darkness. It is remarkable how the two events, as recounted in the synoptic Gospels, present themselves as antitheses and wage a symbolic battle of light against darkness.
In Matthew 17:1-8 Jesus takes Peter and James and John to a high mountain where heaven comes to earth: Jesus’ face shines as the sun, his garments become white as light, Moses and Elijah appear, a voice from a shining cloud speaks (“This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased; listen to him”), and the disciples fall on their faces and fear exceedingly.
There is one other place in Matthew where people fear exceedingly: after the centurion and those with him see the miraculous signs attendant upon the crucifixion, they too fear exceedingly. The link is small, but it prods one to observe that also common to the transfiguration and the crucifixion are the confession of Jesus as God’s “Son” (17:5; 27:54), the presence of three named onlookers (17:1, three male disciples: Peter, James, and John; 27:55-56, three female disciples: Mary Magdalene, Mary of James and Joseph, the mother of the sons of Zebedee), and the number six (“after six days,” 17:1; “from the sixth hour,” 27:45).
Moreover, these shared features exist in the midst of dramatic contrasts:

Transfiguration, 17:1-8 Crucifixion, 27
Jesus takes others (1) (31) Jesus is taken by others
elevation on mountain (1) (35) elevation on cross
private epiphany (1) (39) public spectacle
light (2) (45) darkness
garments illumined (2.) (28, 35) garments stripped off
Jesus is glorified (2ff.) (27ff.) Jesus is shamed
Elijah appears (3) (45-50) Elijah does not appear
two saints beside Jesus (3) (38) two criminals beside Jesus
God confesses Jesus (5) (46) God abandons Jesus
reverent prostration (6) (29) mocking prostration

Between Matthew 17:1-8 and 27:27-56 there is a curious confluence of similar motifs and contrasting images. We have here (whether intended by the author or not) pictorial antithetical parallelism, something like a diptych in which the two plates have similar outlines but different colors. If one scene were sketched on a transparency and placed over the other, many of its lines would disappear.
Despite their similarities, the two Gospel scenes represent the extremities of human experience. One tells of spit and mockery, nails and nakedness, blood and loneliness, torture and death. The other makes visible the presence of God and depicts the divinization of human nature. Moreover, the contradiction of experience, the coincidence of opposites in one person, is forcefully felt in the colors: the triumph is white and the tragedy black.

Source: Allison, D. C., Jr. (1995). The silence of angels. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International. pp. 57-58.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s