From the time Jesus met his apostles, this is exactly what he’d invited them to learn how to do. For Jesus himself, from his earliest years, it had taken the form of being led by God to proclaim a hands-on message of hope, and love, and compassion by reaching out to the lowliest and and poorest and neediest of God’s people. The Apostles wouldn’t have been strangers to the idea of God’s “glory” and “majesty” continually breaking into human lives. Jesus and they had, in their Jewish Scriptures and history, witnessed God’s holiness, justice, judgment, and mercy at work in the human lives of their forbears. God was always intruding through strange, awsome, even intimidating, events, often confusing and beyond human explanation, but always in behalf of the lowly and the poor.
Jesus’ whole ministry was an attempt to get the apostles and others to see that in his words and deeds, in his very person, this glorious, majestic God of hope, justice, love, and compassion was coming out, bursting in, breaking into our familiar world through unforeseen happenings, utterly amazing occurences, shattering all human expectations. Think of the steward’s reaction in the wedding of Cana in the Gospel of the Second Sunday after Epiphany; think of last Sunday’s Gospel about the unexpected, abundant, net-breaking catch of fish, and of Peter’s flash of understanding. Unfortunately, these occasions of insight for most of the Apostles were few and far between. Most of the time they simply didn’t “get it”. The Apostles seem to vacillate between insight, faith, and lack of insight, disbelief.
Which brings us to this Gospel (Luke 9:28-43) in the space between Epiphany and Lent. In the first verse, Luke situates us by saying “Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray...” What are “these sayings”? They’re what Jesus spoke in the six preceding verses, and they’re “hard” sayings: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected...and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” I’m betting that the apostles probably thought this “Son of Man” stuff referred to someone other than Jesus. Jesus says further that if anyone really can comprehend what’s at stake here, they’ll willingly “deny themselves and take up their cross daily” and follow him. If all you can do is hang on to and cling to what you have to give to those who need it most, then you’ll lose your life; but those willing to “lose their life for my sake will save it”. The apostles didn’t like this talk of suffering and sacrificing and dying. It didn’t “become” this Man whom they knew equated himself with God. But Jesus insisted: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father...” Shortly after this Peter, even after witnessing Jesus’ glory and the glory of God’s voice confirming Jesus as God’s Son, will make a lame comment about building permanent “dwellings” on the mountaintop, on which Luke wisely comments: “...not knowing what he said.” Peter missed the whole point.
To better understand Luke’s passage today we can go to no finer source than the magnificent painting called The Transfiguration, by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, known to us simply as Raphael (1483-1520). I remember standing in awe at his tomb at the Pantheon in Rome in 1998. Later, in the Vatican Museum, I viewed another of his famous paintings, The School of Athens, though I missed seeing The Transfiguration.
Raphael was commissioned to do this painting in late 1516 or early 1517, by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici. It was meant to go to the Cathedral of Narbonne, France, along with another painting by Sebastiano del Piombo. It never left Rome, however; it was almost completed, except for the bottom right-hand area, but had to be finished by others after Raphael died in 1520 at the age of 37.
The two main sections of the painting encompass today’s whole Gospel story. In the topmost section a resplendent Christ, clothed in snow-white raiment, seems to float, as if suspended before the painting itself, hands raised in an almost ecstatic gesture toward the unseen divinity of the Father and the Holy Spirit, united and concentrated in himself. Jesus is flanked on either side by Moses and Elijah. Spectacular light effects blind the trio of Peter, James and John, contrasting with the darkness of the lower scene. Giorgio Vasari, 16th century Italian painter, architect, and biographer of the great Italian artists, in his Lives of the Artists, refers to “...the perfect art of Raphael, who seems to have summoned up all his powers in such a manner, in order to show the supreme force of his art in the countenance of Christ, that, after finishing this, the last work that he was to do, he never again touched a brush, being overtaken by death...”
Off to the left, Raphael shows two kneeling figures identified as SS. Justus and Pastor, two 4th century Spanish saints, who died under the governor, Dacian, in the co-reign of Emperors Diocletian and Maximian. They were schoolboys, Justus, age 13, and Pastor, age 9, who allegedly ran out of their school, loudly proclaiming their Christian faith, just as Dacian was torturing a group of Christians. Dacian became so enraged that he had them severely beaten, then beheaded. They later became patron saints both of Alcalá, Spain, where their relics are kept, and of Madrid. By including them Raphael underscores the necessity of faith in understanding the vision. Justus and Pastor see and are illuminated by faith, and, evoking the role of the saints, kneel as intercessors for the beholders. In the painting the upper scene, with its light, color, and transcendence, as a vision occupies a different pictorial reality from their own.
Moving slightly to the left, the viewer’s eye is drawn to the blonde-haired woman, kneeling in the middle. Vasari refers to her as “...the principal figure in that panel who, having knelt down before the Apostles, and turning her head towards them, stretches her arms in the direction of the maniac and points out his misery...” This figure differs from the others in several respects: 1) she’s not mentioned in the Scriptural passage; 2) she’s the only identifiable female figure amidst all male figures; 3) Raphael paints her skin and draped clothing in much cooler tones and illuminates her pink garment, such that it almost shines as white as the clothing of the transfigured Christ, Moses, and Elijah; 4) she is spatially and tonally set off from both groups; 5) Raphael paints her kneeling in a contrapposto pose. Contrapposto is an Italian term used in visual art to describe a human figure standing with most of its weight on one foot or knee so that its shoulders and arms twist off-axis from the hips and legs, giving it either a more dynamic or relaxed appearance. The technique was also used, particularly in sculpture, to demonstrate the body’s ability to convey a whole range of human dispositions and experience, which is what Raphael seems to have done using the medium of painting.
The painted female figure serves the same purpose as someone addressing the group. The gesture of her gaze and pointed arm and finger “speaks” directly to the apostles, appealing to them to look at the demoniac boy. But, despite her striking presence, the apostles look past her, remaining unresponsive to the boy’s real need. Their inability to “see” the sick boy as a test of their faith, in effect, prevents them from being able to heal him: as the boy’s father tells Jesus later, “I begged your disciples to cast [the demon] out, but they could not.” The beauty and white-shining skin of the woman suggests that she figures here on earth the divine manifestation of the radiant, compassionate Christ; she is a bridge figure between the Apostles and the group around the boy who needs to be released from the demon.
Luke’s Jesus uses the words “faithless and perverse” in rebuking the Apostles later. In Matthew’s version of the story, when they privately ask why they couldn’t heal the boy, Jesus spells it out plainly: “Because of your little faith.” And that’s what Raphael is trying to express in his use of the female figure. St. Augustine, commenting on this story, sees it as a parable for the need to exercise faith in addressing the needs of others, and this female figure, ignored by the apostles, highlights their failure of faith to see and to understand, much less to address the true challenge of the possessed boy.
As we pause and gather our thoughts in this space between the end of Epiphany and the beginning of the Lenten season, the Gospel reading and Raphael’s depiction of the Transfiguration invite us to reflect on the questions which both raise for us. That isn’t easy! Honestly, Luke’s story and Raphael’s painting leaves me somewhat overwhelmed, confused, uncertain as to what to make of it, struggling to uncover the meaning beneath the literal words. My own personal hunch, though I don’t claim that this was Raphael’s intent, is that the female figure might represent Sophia = Wisdom. She reflects, in an earthly fashion, the fullness of God’s glory and splendor, expressed in God’s being as holiness, justice, judgment, mercy, love, and grace. She understands that each of us is called to be that for one another, at the deepest places of our need. She asks of each of us to identify what our true need is, and asks “To whom do you and I reach out, and how do we reach out?”: in hopefulness? in fear? in desperation? In terms of our relationships with one another, Sophia/Wisdom calls us to task on our inattentiveness, our ignorance, our insensitivity, or even our willful overlooking of one another’s cries for help. She seeks to draw us into her vision, the glory and power of Godself, into faith, to help us realize that we, in Christ, are “the son/the daughter, the chosen”, every one of us, responsible for each another.
To realize this and to implement it in day-by-day living takes time. Sometimes we get TMI = "Too Much Information" as, for example in this Gospel, in the painting, and in this reflection on it! We need time to ponder over it, to pray about it, to discern where it could be leading us. Luke says that “a cloud came and overshadowed them”. There are only two times in Scripture that the word epikiázo = to cast a shade on, to envelop is used: the first, at the Annunciation to Mary [“the power of the Most High will overshadow you”, and secondly, in this Transfiguration story told by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Artist Jan Richardson notes that “Each tale reminds us that we cannot contain or confine God within man-made structures. When God shows up, God often appears in and through people...God makes architecture of our anatomy. God seeks to make of us a dwelling, a habitation for the holy.” After Mary is “overshadowed”, she silently carries Jesus in her womb. After the Transfiguration, Luke says, “they kept silent and...told no one any of the things they had seen”.
And so, perhaps, must we. But in our silence it might be wise for us to join the great biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann, in offering his prayer to Jesus on the mountaintop: