“Be ye transformed by
the renewing of your minds”
Is it just our
minds that are to be transformed? What about our bodies? What
about our souls? What Paul has in mind here, I think, includes all
that belongs to the understanding of our humanity, a point which is
eloquently, if not uniquely captured by Dante’s invention of a word in
Italian for what Paul, I think, means – trasumanar – “transhumanised”.
Christianity seeks the transformation of the whole of our humanity,
our entire being made adequate to the life of God. It is especially
the project of the Trinity season which seeks the deeper realization of the
life of Christ in us. “By the grace of God I am what I am”,
Paul says, and may we say it as well, that “his grace was not bestowed
upon [us] in vain”.
But it means
our paying attention to the lessons belonging to the quality of our life in
Christ. “Hear ye him.” There is, it seems to me, a
wonderful coincidence of Providence at work in the close conjunction of
these readings for The 11th Sunday after Trinity and
The Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ yesterday. The humble
publican who seems to “stand afar off, not lift[ing] up so much as his
eyes unto heaven” is brought near, exalted or raised up, as it were,
into the presence of God in his truth and righteousness. The proud
Pharisee, on the other hand, stands and, as we are told pointedly,
“prayed thus with himself”, with words that exalt himself over and
against the publican. Such self-exaltation, such self-promotion, we
might say, ultimately has the opposite effect of placing us far from the
things of God. It negates the power and purpose of prayer which seeks
our transformation by being open to the presence of God in his word and will
for us in our lives, the very thing that prayer seeks. Prayer seeks
It does so,
inescapably, by working on our minds but with a view to the whole of our
being. The Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ signals that
intent clearly and wonderfully. Like the Ascension of Christ, it
speaks to “the exaltation of our humanity” which, like the Ascension,
is realized first and foremost in Christ and only so in us by his grace.
That we should have this feast in the late summer, in the sultry heat of
August, in the time of the maturing of the crops and the early days of
harvest is quite suggestive. Somehow it speaks to what is wanted in
our spiritual lives, lives which embrace all of the things of nature and our
It is about a
vision. Peter and James and John are the witnesses to Christ
transfigured before them. The details of this mountain-top scene are
intriguing and significant. First and foremost, the vision is
Trinitarian. As at the Baptism of Christ, we hear the Father’s voice,
we see the Son, and the Spirit, too, is almost tangibly present; there as a
descending dove, here as the Shekinah, the cloud of glory that
envelopes Jesus and which dazzles the disciples. Included in the
vision, too, are the Old Testament figures of Moses and Elijah who are seen
talking to Jesus.
It is a telling
image of the idea of the Old Covenant in relation to the New. And it
moves Peter, at least, to say that “it is good to be here”.
Surely it is, if we are truly open to the meaning of what is being said and
done. Peter goes on, however, to get it partly right and partly wrong,
much like ourselves, I suppose. “Let us build three tents”,
tabernacles, he says, thinking of the Old Testament scenes of the giving of
the Law, thinking that this is a repeat of such epiphanies of the divine
will for Israel. Wrong. In the Transfiguration of Christ, we are
given to see what we shall be. We are given to see the glorification
of our humanity, a vision, in other words, of our end in God.
As Augustine so
wonderfully puts it in the exalted language of adoration:
We shall rest and we shall see,
We shall see and we shall love,
We shall love and we shall praise,
Behold what shall be in the end that shall not end.
Transfiguration of Christ affords us a vision of our humanity transformed, a
vision of our end in glory. But the point of access is the grace of
prayer, the humility which is open to the workings of divine grace in us
without which we remain very far from God. There is the wonderful
paradox – the dialectic of glory, if you will. We can only be raised
up by being humble.
But what do we
mean by humility? In the therapeutic culture of contemporary life,
considerable emphasis is placed on self-esteem, on how people feel about
themselves and on the demand for people to fulfill themselves, usually in
material and sensual terms. Humility would appear to be the exact
opposite. Like the picture of the Publican who “smote upon his
breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner”, being humble is
associated with beating up on ourselves, on poor self-esteem, on a view of
ourselves as sinners.
This is to
misunderstand entirely the meaning of humility. Our openness to the
truth and the mystery of God is the truth of our humanity. It actually
signifies a kind of magnanimity – being great-souled - precisely because,
like Mary in her song the Magnificat, we are open to the great things
of God in affirmation of his Word and Will. “Be it unto me
according to thy Word” is not about groveling on the ground.
Knowing ourselves as sinners is truth leading to salvation.
But the paradox
is even greater. It comes out in the story of the Transfiguration of
Christ. As a vision of our humanity transformed in Christ, the
Transfiguration is really part and parcel of the awesome humility of God.
God reaches down to us and enters into the wounded and broken fabric of our
humanity in the Word made flesh. The Transfiguration cannot hide the
reality of the Cross and Passion; indeed, it prefigures the glory of the
Passion, a glory made known in the hideous spectacle of our sins made
visible in the crucified Christ. “Tell the vision to no man, until
the Son of man be risen again from the dead”, Jesus says. The
Passion is the greater humility, we might say, the humility of God for the
sake of our glory. But again, as Augustine observes, “So deep has
human pride sunk us that only divine humility can raise us”.
humility can raise us.” Prayer is about our wanting that divine
humility to raise us. Prayer signifies our will for something more than the
status quo of our daily lives, our lives of prejudice and jealousy,
our lives of pride and self-promotion, our lives of deceit and judgment, our
lives of complacency about ourselves and disregard of the needs of others;
in short, our lives of despair are really like the prayer of the Pharisee.
We are only talking to ourselves because we don’t think that anyone, namely,
God, is really there. There is only ourselves.
Isn’t that the
real problem in the contemporary church and in some contemporary liturgies?
Prayers that are not prayers but statements about ourselves? Prayers
that are ambiguous and confused about the presence of God and about the
truth of God in his Word proclaimed in the witness of the Scriptures?
It is as if we can no longer think or pray the Scriptures, as if we can no
longer think or pray to God. “Faith”, as Robert Louis Wilken
puts it “is a world of discourse that comes to us in language of a
particular sort”, the language of Scripture, what Augustine calls
“the Lord’s style of language, “in dominico eloquio”. At
the Transfiguration, Christ is seen conversing with Moses and Elijah, the
representatives of Law and Prophecy in the testimony of the Old Testament.
The idea is that somehow those things are connected to the reality of
Christ, the Word and Son of the Father in the anointing of the Spirit.
Somehow we are meant to think the vision. “Hear ye him”, listen
to the Son, our heavenly Father tells us.
To think it is
to live it. In lives of prayer and humble service, not presuming
ourselves to be better or worse than we are, but by a genuine seeking of the
will of God through the habits and disciplines of prayer and worship, we
learn to think it so as to begin to live it.
Humility is the
counter to our pride and results in the true exaltation of our humanity,
“that we, being purified and strengthened by thy grace, may be transformed
into his likeness from glory to glory”. We are granted a vision of
glory. True prayer is about our openness to that glory without which
we remain buried in ourselves, and mired in the muck of our own
self-righteousness. In Christ, and most wonderfully in his
Transfiguration, we are granted a vision of what we shall be but only if we
listen to him so that we may “be transformed by the renewing of our
minds”. Then shall we be exalted.