In aesthetic terms, the Transfiguration is usually a considered a moment of intense brightness when Jesus face ‘shone like the sun’ and His clothes turned whiter than bleach-white.
But that’s just half of it.
The Gospel accounts—all three of them—all include one other fact about the setting: a cloud comes and overshadows Jesus, Moses, Elijah, and the disciples. Commentators rightfully understand this cloud as signifying the presence of God and associate it with the cloud that descended on Mt. Sinai, a connection reinforced by the appearance of Moses.
But many miss an obvious implication that follows. From the brightness of Jesus’ figure and clothing we go to the darkness of the overshadowing cloud. Just one account, Matthew 17, notes that the cloud was ‘bright.’ The other two, Mark 9 and Luke 9, omit that, leaving all the emphasis on the overshadowing of the cloud itself.
The Greek verb for ‘overshadowing’ in all three gospels appears only a handful of times in the New Testament—most in the Transfiguration accounts. Outside of the New Testament, the word had the sense of obscuring something.
The etymology of the word reveals more. Its root, skia (pronounced skē-ä’) refers to the shadow caused by the ‘interception of the light’ (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament). In ancient literature, the word took on strikingly ominous overtones. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses it referred to the ‘shadow of death’ and had a similar meaning in the great epic poem the Aeneid, by Virgil.
Could we have here a hint of the ‘luminous darkness’ of which Church Fathers and mystics have spoken? It would seems so. A close reading of the text strongly suggests that interpretation, if not compels it.
Notice that in all three accounts the disciples become terrified. But it’s not the supernatural luminosity of Jesus that arouses their fear. Instead, it comes after the overshadowing of the cloud. (Only in Mark is the chronology different: their trepidation is recorded right before the cloud.) The account in Matthew may be most telling: “While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.”
Does this darkness undermine the light? Must we rethink what really happened at the Transfiguration?
To the contrary, the notion that the divine light can become a special kind of darkness is well-rooted in mystical theology. Church Fathers like St. Gregory of Nyssa and Dionysius the Areopagite spoke of the ‘luminous darkness.’ In the late Middle Ages, mystics like St. John of the Cross reformulated this as the ‘dark night of the soul.’
For Dionysus, such darkness was the inevitable consequence of encountering a God who is beyond all human categories of knowing. As he puts it: “[T]hose who would see God must pass beyond the limits of creation, into a state which is beyond human knowledge and light and speech, and must therefore, from the point of view of created beings, be called one of ignorance, darkness, and silence.”
A similar idea surfaces in the thought of the contemporary Catholic philosopher Jean-Luc Marion. But rather than emphasize God’s essential difference from creatures, Marion draws attention to the fact that in giving—or revealing—Himself to us, the God who is infinitely good and beautiful gives us more than we as finite creatures can wrap our minds around. From this perspective, it is now what is given but how much that matters.
Marion called this the ‘saturated phenomenon.’ And, for him, it is this experience of sensory saturation by the light of Christ that leads to darkness. Marion calls this blinding brightness ‘bedazzlement’:
For if God opts for ‘the presence of a hidden God’ … this is because no other presence would remain bearable: no mortal can see him without dying, no eye can fix on his shining forth without blinding itself in such a bedazzling sight. What blindness interprets as a simple obscurity must be understood at base as a bedazzlement, in which, in the revelatory figure of Jesus Christ, the Father enters into an absolute epiphany, though filtered through finitude (Prolegomena to Charity, 66).
To this author, the Transfiguration scene at first seemed out of place in the gospels. Christ appears there so unlike He does just about everywhere else before the empty tomb. The Transfiguration seemed to be jumping the gun on the Resurrection. Other readers have noticed it too: some modern scholars even go to the extreme of assuming the Transfiguration account is really a Resurrection scene interpolated back into the gospels.
But a closer reading of the text suggests otherwise. In all three accounts—yes, this author made sure it was all three—the account of the Transfiguration is preceded by the ‘first prediction of the Passion’ and followed by the ‘second prediction.’ This must be by design. And the fact that all three gospel writers do so suggests its importance.
The significance seems to be this: the Christ who rose from the dead was the same Christ who walked the earth before His death.
So the Transfiguration looks ahead to the Resurrection. It’s a sort of peephole into future glory, if you will.
But the Resurrection also points back to the Transfiguration. Indeed, it is because of the Resurrection that all—not just a few privileged disciples—are invited to experience the Transfiguration. All are called to be bedazzled by Jesus.