Now is the time of the Annunciation when we, along with the whole cosmos, again pause for Mary’s response. And very soon a similar cosmic event, the Transfiguration, will be upon us. Each in their own way recalls the link between Divinity and humanity, thus revealing all the more God as Trinity. Moreover, each narrative turn stands as a powerful reminder against an all too easy and facile compartmentalizing of the Cross from the Resurrection and Divine activity from human agency.

Archbishop Michael Ramsey writes in his little book, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ, that the Transfiguration confronts us with “some of the deepest divergences between Eastern and Western Christianity.” In many ways this point speaks to the obvious. As Ramsey notes, the East is more mystical than moral while the West, more moral than mystical, often slips into moralism or legalism, thus missing the cosmic effects of the Incarnation. Yet the East seems to so regard “the Cross in the light of the Resurrection as sometimes to make it seem to be robbed of its own special significance and be absorbed into the glory of Easter.” The West, however, suffers from the inverse, “too often isolating the Cross from the Resurrection” (135).

Unlike the West, however, the East has still “instinctively honored the Transfiguration.” Ramsey demonstrates why this is important and notes that to the extent that Western theology has forgotten the centrality of the Transfiguration, it has been to our determinant and representative of compartmentalizing tendencies that continue to plague us today.

According to Ramsey, the East’s main focus of the Transfiguration is “the insistence that nature is not left behind but is transformed by Christ in the same new creation wherein the souls of men are drawn to union with God” (137). This has had a massive effect upon Eastern dogma, so much so that the Transfiguration “came to be treated less an event amongst other events and a dogma amongst other dogmas than a symbolizing of something which pervades all dogma and all worship” (137). This intense focus on defied nature, in relation to the Transfiguration, helps to explain Vladimr Lossky’s insistence that East has never tarried with a sense of “pure nature.”[1]

Turing his eyes toward the West, Ramsey traces how the Late Middle Ages and Reformation period attempted to shrug off the husk of the Transfiguration, chalking it up to another pagan inception which occluded the pure content of the Gospel.  Although lost to theology proper, Ramsey finds vestiges of the doctrine within the period’s Homiletic Literature (141). The Homilies of Joseph Hall are particularly telling for Ramsey, as they point to a conceptual bridge. As Hall writes, “A strange opportunity…when his head shone with glory, to tell him how it must bleed with thorns; when his face shone like the sun, to tell him it must be blubbered and spat upon; when his garments glistered with celestial brightness, to tell him they must be stripped and divided…and whilst he was Transfigured on the Mount, to tell him how he must be Disfigured on the Cross!” (140-1). Here, the unifying symbolism of the Transfiguration begins to appear despite the compartmentalizing tendencies of the Reformation period.

Ramsey then turns to Bishop Westcott, who finally offers a theological treatment of the Transfiguration. What the Transfiguration reveals, not unlike the East, is “the measure of the capacity of humanity” for the Divine life. Here we can begin to see that the Transfiguration’s focus on humanity’s “capacity” helps to break down a competitive transcendence model that pits God against human agents.

Ramsey’s study does not simply offer a fascinating history and exegesis upon the events at Mt. Hermon as much as it offers a sound warning. Without the Transfiguration, theology seems doomed to repeat the theological distortions of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Ramsey notes but a few:

Forgetfulness of the truths for which the Transfiguration stands has often led to distortions. The severance of the New Testament from the Old, the cleavage between God the Redeemer and God the Creator are obvious illustrations. It is possible, alike in Christology and in sacramental teaching and in the idea of the Christian life, to regard the supernatural as replacing the natural in such a way as to ‘overthrow the nature of a sacrament’. It is possible to regard the redemptive act of God in Christ in terms so transcendental that nature and history are not seen in real relation to it, or to identify the divine act with nature and history in such a way that the other-worldly tension of the Gospel is forgetting. Against these distortions the Transfiguration casts its light in protest (144).

Notably, Ramsey refers to the Transfiguration as a “protest” against isolating dogma. Cast in this light, the Transfiguration functions less as a unifying symbol or leveling between Cross and Resurrection, as much as it asks us to continuing living through the entire divine life, to never be caught standing in place either in complete resignation (the cross) or triumph (the glory of Easter). “Thus the Christian life is a rhythm of going and coming; and the gospel narrative of the ascent of Hermon, the metamorphosis and the descent to a faithless and perverse generation is a symbol of the mission of the Church in its relation to the world” (146).

But this is not the time of the Transfiguration. It is the time of Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary, yet another doctrine that has been sidelined in order to make space for “pure nature” at the expanse of the capax dei. Ramsey’s argument for the “protest” of the Transfiguration also hold true for the Annunciation.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux writes that “we too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion… Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word.”

It’s clear for St. Bernard that Mary’s freedom is not a mere voluntarism, “as if she were disinterestedly perched between a yes and a no.”[2] Utterly lacking any “two agents” theological grammar,[3] the Annunciation stands as another “protest” against an emphatic distinction between and human activity. We have no indication that Mary could have refused, yet there is also no indication that God could have done without Mary, that she was a pure instrument or as if any uterus would have worked. Rather, we’re left with a disorientated sense of although she was chosen, divinity is contingent on her response; that is, on human poesis so wonderfully described by St. Bernard who pleads for Mary’s fiat: “This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet. It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race.”

Is it too much to say that humans “participate” in their salvation? Only if we are in the grip of Reformed and Lutheran readings, stemming from a hyper-Augustinian account of human agency. What Ramsey asks us to reconsidered in light of the Transfiguration and what St. Bernard calls us to contemplate through Mary’s fiat, is another theologically warranted (and somewhat forgotten) account for naming our actions as our actions, solely because God became human that humans might become God.

[1] Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 101.

[2] Anthony Baker and Rocco Gangle, “Ecclesia: The Art of the Virtual” in Theology and the Political: The New Debate, 274.

[3] Michael Hanby, Augustine and Modernity, 82