Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Reading the Transfiguration: Luke 9

Reading enacts an experience of texts. One does not read oneself reading, for reading through 'distance' constitutes the very experience of reading, the very experience of placing oneself in relation to a text. In this piece I want to read one of the Synoptic versions of the Transfiguration, a theophany that in all 3 texts takes place on a mountain, or elevated space. I will not address the 'synoptic problem' but instead choose Luke because his narrative in particular sits well within my hermeneutic attitude. His problematizing, for example, 'saying' (lego) and 'seeing' (eido) precisely straddles the issues that interest me in general. Much hangs on this phrase:

μὴ εἰδὼς λέγει 

Which I read as 'he saw not what he said,' or, 'he said what he did not see.' A more general, 'he didn't realize (or know) what he was saying,' simply does not work. Words of saying and seeing complicate the play of the narrative which presents images, voices, and discussions. Luke, and what I mean by 'Luke' is a textual tradition, a tradition of textuality, not necessarily a particular human person who had something to do with the generation of this particular text we commonly call 'gospel,' the Gospel according to Luke. Luke presents the Transfiguration within a particular narrative strategy that shapes my experience of that narrative and its particular content. I will focus on what is said and seen as it structures my experience of the 'story.'

About eight days after he said this, he took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray. While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But he did not know what he was saying. While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. They fell silent and did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen. [ Luke 9: 28-36, NAB]

Luke 9 is a most eventful chapter:  the commission of the 12, a snapshot of Herod, feeding the 5000, Peter's declaration of Jesus as Christ, the messianic secret, the prediction of the Resurrection, all these pericopes precede the pericope of the Transfiguration, not to mention the several that follow. For this reading, however, some narrative elements of the chapter are so decisively formative, that their texts must be given voice:

And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. [16]

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.” [20]

“The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” [22]

 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed [26]

Luke puts Jesus, transfigured, in conversation with Moses and Elijah, discussing what will transpire in Jerusalem (exodus). Luke directs his narrative to me alone; I read as the apostles sleep. He places me in dramatic tension with the apostles who will soon awaken. I see and therefore know what is before me before (prior to) Peter, James and John become aware of what's before them. Luke and I share an experience of a change in the appearance of Jesus' face and his garments, though from very different, irreducible perspectives (our experiences are unique). Luke shares this moment with me to enfold me into the text, to invite me into the world of the text, a world not my own but a world I see through my eyes in my world now brought into the text.

Peter awakens; does he see what I see? Luke gives me Peter's view upon 'glory.'  He sees Jesus in glory and Moses and Elijah; but he will say what he had not seen, though he clearly has seen something (μὴ εἰδὼς λέγει ). Luke delivers Jesus' visage and raiment become totally other. He guides my gaze to Moses and Elijah: behold. I see (video) what Peter does not see (eido). What I behold---imagine, see, image differs from what Peter sees, imagines, images, because Luke structures my experience so that I may see more clearly than Peter. Luke constructs Peter's experience as something familiar to me: emerging from sleep, but he disallows a state of remaining in half-sleep (diagregoreo). Fully awake, Peter might just as well have stayed asleep: allow me to paraphrase,  'How wonderful is this, all of us here together in this one place; let's pitch a few tents that we can all tarry a bit.' Peter cannot distinguish moments from minutes.

Not that I can see much more. But what I see, what Luke has given,  I cannot place within tents, tabernacles or dwellings. Luke has shown me something that has saturating, overwhelming and uncontainable effect. It has not been time enough to forget, it has not been 8 days for me---I can read and hear the words Luke gives me. What I see in the transfigured face of Jesus, bedazzling as it is, is the visage that envisages me, that transforms my gaze to see a gaze coming at me: Luke builds for me an experience that allows me to see that I am seen. Peter has no experience of this transformation as yet (he has misspoken what he saw), but Luke will give it (again) in just a moment to both Peter and to me, an experience from which we both 'see' from within the cloud, what Luke has heretofore shown me alone.

This cloud is none other than the cloud of Exodus (what Moses and Elijah speak to Jesus about, albeit a different kind of exodus for Jesus than for Israel). Peter and his companions respond with fear as they enter the cloud. Luke remains silent about their experience once in the cloud, emphasizing their experience of a frightening liminality as they pass from one world into another. Once in the cloud, they presumably hear the same voice I do, coming from the cloud.

Luke has choreographed this moment to ensure that while I hear the voice as well as Peter does, we hear from different places. I do not pass through a veil of fear to the voice as Peter must because I saw the face of Jesus in a way that Peter did not. My experience is not a liminal one: givenness comes directly through my gaze gazed upon. What is given in the cloud is the very chrismation of Jesus by the voice of God: Jesus becomes Christ: "this is my Son, my chosen: listen to him." That is, hear his words, hear the one who is himself the Word, the one who gives himself as Word, and do not be ashamed. The 'voice' as word speaks Jesus as the chosen, as the one. Initially Peter says what he does not see, even though 8 days prior he saw enough to speak Jesus as the Christ of God. As soon as this voice speaks, the phenomenality changes. The experience of that moment is over, but a counter-experience remains, as the response to the voice (unlike the face) is an appropriate silence, much like Mark's frightened women at the tomb.

The Synoptic transfiguration/theophany pericopes are the only places in the Gospels where Jesus is depicted in his divinity within narrative proper (story). In this case, Luke positions me to see the invisible made visible. Jesus becomes the icon of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), the face of God. The face is given to me first, perhaps even differently than it is given to Peter. Luke gives me what no one else is given: Peter says what he did not see: he did not see what I saw, because Luke guides me to the face as it is,  the icon, not the idol, as it is for Peter, who, stricken by the idol, offers, in his counter-experience of the idol, the 3 'images' tents to stay in. Peter mistakes what he sees as something containable, and presents the 'idolatry of the concept' in the form of dwellings, perhaps within the frame of the 'tent of meeting.' I 'see' Peter seeing the idol because Luke has shaped my experience to allow the icon to appear to me. The distance between the divine and human is commensurate to the dwellings for Peter. That he recognizes Moses and Elijah at all underscores a certain clarity in his apprehension of the images; after all, Peter speaks matter-of-factly of his understanding of these two figures, and Luke never accounts for how these figures have become Moses and Elijah for Peter, yet Peter has lost the forest for the trees. Nonetheless, because Luke has given the face to me, that distance is immense, even if I can account for its non-traversiblity only in counter-experience.

Both Peter and I have had experiences of at least two saturated phenomena. Perhaps, in silence, Peter's counter-experience is indeed of the icon: the text is silent on the matter. Luke has presented the absurdity of containing the event, the divine, which informs Peter's first experience. He does not realize what his words were saying about his experience, about what he saw: he is unaware of the 'disconnect' between seeing and saying, that is, he is unaware of the distance; he has gauged the distance in idolatry, a very forgivable idolatry.

I experience a unity of the voice and the face within Luke's orchestration of the event of the transfiguration pericope. This union emerges like a voice from a cloud within the relationality of the voice and the person of the one who is transfigured. After the 'event,' he was alone: ecce homo. Jesus is human, and stands with Peter as two humans stand beside one another. Luke invites me to stand with them. The event, under erasure of cloud and prophet, face-as-other and dazzlingly white raiment, begins to seep through the porosity of the silence, which can contain nothing. Luke has given the visible face of Jesus a new look, that of the other, the face of the un-seeable, invisible face of the voice of the invisible one within the cloud that closes the gap between one exodus and another. I have been made aware of the truth of the things of which I have been informed (Luke 1:4) through the narrative (diagesis).

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