A Transfigured Centre?

I distinctly recall one Saturday evening in January where (as often happens up here) miserable weather in Edinburgh fully justified a night in. I turned on the TV to find a new game show fronted by comedian Jason Manford which looked suitably entertaining. It was called First and Last. Yet, the idea of the game was to avoid being first or last – instead to find the middle or the centre. Any contestant arriving in first or last position would be eliminated; all the others would remain. For example, in one round, players were asked to write down one word based on how many times they thought it had appeared in tweets in the previous year. The players who identified the least and most frequently appearing words on Twitter were eliminated from the game; the rest remained.

A game which celebrated being in the middle or centre struck me as an interesting concept, given human fascination with outliers – both the spectacular and the catastrophic – and aversion to the average. I am unsure, however, whether it will have captured sufficient public interest to reappear on our screens post-lockdown.

In antiquity, many traditions valued the middle; it was famously captured in the Aristotelian notion of the Golden Mean, which drew on past wisdom, such as the maxim from the Delphic oracle: “nothing too much”. In other words, everything should be in moderation: particularly the emotions and socio-political decisions. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Daedalus, the craftsman father, memorably builds wings and tests them out with his son, Icarus. Daedalus instructs Icarus to take the middle course: neither going so low that the waves weigh down the wings; nor going so high that the heat of the sun melts them. “Fly in between” is the precept; but Icarus becomes too confident and flies too close to the sun, melting the wings, and sending him crashing into the sea. Icarus lost sight of the centre.[1]

Speaking for the nations on either side of the Atlantic, I wonder if collectively we have lost sight of a political centre, and more people than ever are being pulled towards the extremes. While more conservative and capitalist agendas are currently in the ascendency, there is considerable progressive and liberal opposition that (rightly) seeks to overturn it. COVID-19 may provide the impetus for a sea change. Such an overturn may well provide a necessary correction from an agenda that promotes financial profit over social care; but it could also risk eroding valuable traditions and decreasing productivity. Alternatively, the current crisis may lead to further deadlock and an impasse. Might the way ahead involve re-envisioning a more polyvalent centre?

Recently, there has been some debate among broadly “evangelical” Christians regarding the centre of the faith or the gospel.[2] To my mind, this is healthy: the Christian faith should not be delimited and too narrowly conceived; there is more than one centre[3] based on the life and work of Jesus. For instance, Jesus’ status as Son of God, the cross, the resurrection, and Jesus’ ascension and session (i.e. being seated – nothing to do with drinking…) at the right hand of the Father are all necessary centres and parts of the gospel. In this piece, I shall explore three ways in which a central event in the Gospels – especially Mark[4] – Jesus’ transfiguration, portrays Jesus as the Centre, and consider whether these principles should encourage us to want to seek a broader political centre.

The Transfiguration

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13) appears almost exactly halfway through the narrative, marking it out as a central event. Jesus’ identity as the Son of God is gradually revealed over the course of Mark’s account. In the previous chapter (8:29), there is an important moment where the disciple Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah. Although correct, Peter only partially understands Jesus’ identity: in the next scene, he fails to grasp the significance of the Messiah’s mission, for which Jesus rebukes him (8:31-33).

The central transfiguration scene reveals more of Jesus’ identity. Up a mountain before Peter, James and John, Jesus is transfigured: his appearance changes; his clothes noticeably become gleaming white. Additionally, two significant figures from Israel’s history, Elijah, and Moses, appear and speak with Jesus. Bewildered but wanting to say something in the moment, Peter reverently proposes to set up three tents: one for each of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Jesus makes no reply; but instead, a voice comes from heaven, saying simply: “This is my beloved son, listen to him.” (9:7) At this point, the transfiguration ends, and the disciples are left alone with Jesus. They head back down the mountain.

Three Central Considerations

1. Learning to listen to the Centre

At the start of Mark, following his baptism, Jesus had been similarly marked out as God’s beloved Son by a voice from heaven (1:11). There is no indication, however, that anyone apart from Jesus heard this voice. At the transfiguration, three of his closest disciples see Jesus in an entirely new light and hear that He is God’s Son. Yet, in response, they are simply commanded to listen and later, as frequently happens in the first half of Mark, Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone about what they have seen (9:9).

This makes me ask myself (not for the first time): do I listen enough to Jesus? Having had a vision of the majesty of Jesus, often the best response in worship is silence and listening: admiring, sensing, breathing in his glory. The prophet Isaiah, in speaking of a servant, whom Christians believe is fulfilled in Jesus says: “kings will shut their mouths because of him” (Isaiah 52:15).

Although listening to Jesus as the Centre remains the priority, Christians are called to show gentleness to all (Philippians 4:5) and no doubt this involves listening to others. Maybe, in broader terms, some of the reason we have such extremes in our current socio-political climate is that we are not listening to one another. Both sides are trying to shout louder than the other or obfuscate, which achieves very little. I would even go so far as to say that if there was more listening, there might even be a more balanced and representative political centre.[5]

2. Jesus Alone is the Centre

As soon as these words are uttered by the heavenly voice, Jesus’ transfiguration ceases. Mark writes: “they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them” (Mark 9:8). If we imagine the transfiguration as a tableau, Jesus is the central figure. Following the scene, Jesus remains the centre. The litmus test for an authentic vision of Jesus is whether he remains the centre following a vision, as he does here in the transfiguration. I appreciate the words in Matt Redman’s song, Wide as the Sky: “Let all the other names fade away until there’s only You … Jesus, take your place.”

The transfiguration is a literal mountain-top experience for the disciples where they see Jesus’ glory in an even more profound way. For many believers, meeting together and particularly festivals and pilgrimages can facilitate this access to God. Unfortunately, such gatherings are impossible because of the present restrictions. Our access to the central and ascended Jesus is still possible though. In ascending to the Father, Jesus did not abandon his disciples, but gave the Holy Spirit as a means of encountering him so that he can remain a central presence.

Any vision or encounter of God is not for our own sake; we are not at the centre. If we think we are, we deceive ourselves. There was a sense in which Icarus imagined himself as a god in flying higher. Ovid portrays some bystanders, who think as much: each of them “believed them [Daedalus and Icarus] to be gods”. But they weren’t. There is a divide between humanity and divine, which Jesus bridges. Any proclamation of the gospel should reckon with our qualitative difference from Jesus. Although we are made in the image of God, we are not God; we are imperfect. When we look at the Centre, we see that it is not all about our preferences and needs; we open ourselves up to a wider narrative. For many, such a vision will lead to specific passions for different sectors of society; but it ought not to lead to imbalance and polarities.

3. The resurrection of the Centre

As they descend the mountain, Jesus points ahead to a future event: the Son of Man’s (i.e. his) resurrection from the dead. The transfiguration is a central scene in the life of Jesus; but it is not really a centre of the gospel. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is far more central. In dying, Jesus descends to the depths, but is raised. This is the centrepiece where Jesus is fully vindicated as the Son of Man, although his kingly present location, ascended and seated at the right hand of the Father, is also vital.

At this point in the narrative, the disciples are understandably confused. Boris Johnson’s initial presentation about the recovery and way forward from the peak of the virus two weeks ago were dense and confusing in places. While his (and his cabinet’s) leadership skills can easily be called into question, Johnson’s ability as an orator is undeniable. He memorably and movingly spoke about the descent from the peak often being the most dangerous part.

COVID-19 has tragically contributed to the loss of thousands of lives. Notions of recovery might currently be inconceivable for those who have lost loved ones. Various models of recovery – particularly on an economic level – have been proposed by those whose responsibility it is to look forward.[6] There has been talk of a V-shaped recovery: having degenerated quickly, the economy will rebound just as quickly. Yet, this does not seem so realistic. There is now more talk of a Nike tick: the same rapid degeneration, but a more gradual and longer tail towards pre-pandemic recovery.

I have seen the Nike tick used as an analogy for Christian discipleship patterned on the example of Christ. The descent expresses the suffering that is experienced in this life, which Christ also knew in suffering for us. Yet, because of the resurrection of Christ which signals a cancellation of death, there is an assurance of glory later, where those who trust in this will permanently be in the presence of Jesus, our resurrected Centre. The path to glory can be long and drawn out though and often appears confusing. Yet, the ascended Jesus is at the end, seated, and ready to return in glory, where our vision of him will be perfectly restored.

It would be tempting to make the leap from the resurrection of the Centre, Jesus, to notions of the resurrection of a political centre. This sort of equation, however, would be fraught with difficulty and even impious: the former has salvific power, while the latter does not. I know and respect many believers who would distance themselves from a central political position in favour of more radical ones, believing that they do so in good faith.

Nevertheless, I still believe that the central event of Jesus’ transfiguration shows us the values of listening, humility in recognising that we are not the centre, and the future prospect of resurrection, which are helpful in our present descent. All these values foster an inclusivity that challenges a culture of exclusivity and extremes. While a broader political centre may be desirable, what this looks like in practice is of course nebulous, and may even be unstable in nature.

Conversely, the transfiguration offers us a vision of a Person who is stable: who can be listened to as a Centre, who remains constant and present in mountain-top moments and moments of descent, and who has been raised and is seated in glory. Jesus is the Centre and the First and the Last.

[1] I was interested to come across a book, The Icarus Deception (2012) by Seth Godin, which appears to make the point that it is also dangerous to fly too low and play it too safe.

[2] At the centre of this debate has been the work of Matthew Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone (2017) which he has felt has been misrepresented by members of The Gospel Coalition. See his response here to an address by Greg Gilbert: https://www.christianitytoday.com/scot-mcknight/2020/april/good-news-are-t4g-tgc-leaders-starting-to-change-their-gosp.html. I think Bates has made an important contribution and his insistence on Jesus as ascended king as the centre of the gospel and the need to pledge allegiance to Him is, on the whole, extremely helpful. I have a few reservations about whether pistis as “allegiance” (rather than faith) can be applied as widely as a metaphor and translation of the relevant passages, as Bates believes, but that’s a topic for another day.

[3] I have recently been reading John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift (2015) and he makes a tremendous case for different “perfections” of grace, i.e., notions that can be extended to a logical extreme, coming up with six different ones in all. Bates also makes use of this in his work. At time of writing, Paul and the Gift is conveniently £3.48 on Kindle.

[4] The transfiguration features in all three synoptic Gospels (Mark 9:2-13, Matthew 17:1-8, Luke 9:28-36) but has a particularly central place in Mark. There is no transfiguration scene in the Gospel of John, but Jesus’ identity as Son of God is made rather explicit in the opening verses.

[5] I was sorry that Rory Stewart did not fare better in the leadership contest for the Conservative Party. He did an excellent job of listening to people.

[6] From the World Economic Forum website: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/05/z-u-or-nike-swoosh-what-shape-will-our-covid-19-recovery-take/

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4 thoughts on “A Transfigured Centre?

  1. Thanks Alex. Appreciated. How are you keeping? Have you caught up with our Count Everyone in YouTube channel yet. Leading up to Pentecost goes live each morning at 9:30am. Blessings, Pete

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPhone

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    1. Thank you for encouraging, Pete, and great to hear from you! All OK this end: have stayed in Edinburgh and making steady progress with the thesis, although sorry about the situation, and all that has had to be cancelled/postponed. Humbling and a wake-up call for sure.
      I have just had a look at your YouTube channel. Wonderful stuff! Refreshing. I’ll drop by every now and again.
      Blessings and hopefully see you in Newbury before too long, Alex.

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  2. I’ll just say it as it is: the multiple layers your reflection touches, especially as it highlights powerfully the coming together of the centre and the mountain top in the transfiguration, permits a truly bright glimpse of the light of the resurrection, which continues to reverberate throughout history.

    May it continue to touch you and us through you. Thanks my friend.

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    1. Hermano Esgrid, thanks so much for your beautiful encouragement. So thankful we have the transfiguration as part of the wondrous and mystical narrative! See there’s been a bit of action over on your Medium over lockdown… Keep it flowing…

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