Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Mystery of the Transfiguration

By Raniero Cantalamessa, 144 pages, Servant Books.

Cantalamessa takes a holistic, sophisticated view of Jesus' transfiguration, surveying a great deal of spiritual and theological experience and reflection. He introduces the reader to the much-neglected debate between the 2 Christological traditions of ancient Christianity from the ancient Christian centres of Antioch and Alexandria, Egypt.

Briefly, Antioch tended towards a more Pauline interpretation, focused on the passion and resurrection of Jesus, while the Alexandrians emphasized the Gospel of John's theology of the incarnation, whereby the very fact of Jesus as God incarnate is the centre and transformative event of human history. St. Paul saw the great transformative event in the resurrection. Both, of course, are right, and each school realized the importance of the other viewpoint.

Cantalamessa's discussion tries to unite different points of interest and spiritual practices. He notes that up to today, the Greek, Eastern Orthodox Churches tend towards the incarnational approach of St. John, whereas the Latin Church has emphasized St. Paul's focus on Christ's resurrection. Echoing Pope John Paul II's call for the re-united Church of East and West that breathes with 2 lungs, Cantalamessa writes that we need the Antiochene (and therefore Latin) focus on Jesus' humanity, and the Alexandrian (therefore Greek and Eastern) locus on the divinity of Christ.

In this preoccupation with both perspectives and the richness from their unity, The Mystery of the Transfiguration takes a place in ecumenism, which of late has itself become a neglected feature of Christian life at a time when secular society keeps pushing Judeo-Christian values out of sight.

Cantalamessa takes the reader on a fruitful, richly spiritual journey through the New Testament and Christian spirituality. He starts with a close reading of the 3 synoptic gospels' portrayals of the transfiguration, noting that “The Passion is found at the very heart of the mystery of the Transfiguration.” Both events come out of Christ's kenosis, or self-emptying. Christ serves humanity by emptying himself of his own will, accepting the will of the Father. In both events, Christ shows his power and glory by choosing the opposite of these 2 things.

But Cantalamessa also finds interesting, and less sobering features of the transfiguration, writing that it “is the most fitting mystery, with its exultation of light, to introduce us to the contemplation of beauty,” such as found, he notes, in icons.

The author also connects the transfiguration to Jesus' baptism, because of the central role of the Holy Spirit in both cases, and therefore to our own contemplation of Christ: “It is not possible to contemplate Jesus except 'in the Holy Spirit.'” The Holy Spirit reveals Jesus to us.

Cantalamessa turns to the Eastern Christian emphasis on the divinization of humans through the Holy Spirit, since the Spirit “gives us not only 'adiuvante' ('helping') grace but also participation in the divine nature.”

This spiritual survey of Christian theology and history demands much from the reader, as it ties together such things as Eastern art of the Pantocrator; Eastern Holy Fools; St. Augustine's belief that humans are closer to the crucified than to the risen Christ until we pass to the next world; and the Protestant Theology of the Cross.

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