Eastern Orthodox icon-painting has aroused a lot of interest in the West recently. It is as if we have finally tired of minimalism, of our stripped-down, functional churches. We yearn for the beauty of art, with its power to draw us deeper into an intuitive understanding of the divine mystery. More and power people are finding in icons a doorway to the sacred, and a deepening of their prayer life.
One of the characteristic features of icons is their light. In Western painting, light comes from a particular source, and shines in a particular direction. This means that there is both light and shadow. In icons, on the other hand, the painting is suffused in light. Traditionally icons are never lit from a single source; an icon is painted as if light comes within the image. The light that shines from within the icon shines on us too as we stand before it.
The gospel narrative of the transfiguration (Mk. 9.2-10) seems to me to be a story about exactly this kind of light. It is not an exterior light that shines on Jesus. Rather, it is a light that shines from within him. The truth of who he is shines out: his love, his goodness, his compassion. For a moment or two these radiate from him, with such power that the whole scene is transformed. This light touches everything. It is not just the face of Jesus that is changed. The world around him is changed too. This mysterious event had a profound effect on those who witnessed it. (So much so that the account of the transfiguration appears in each of the synoptic gospels, that is to say, in Matthew, Mark and Luke.)
Traditionally the Transfiguration has been interpreted in terms of Jesus fulfilling the Law and the Prophets. Hence his conversation with Moses who brought the law, and Elijah, an outstanding prophet). Or it has been seen as a gesture by Jesus to strengthen the disciples for the coming horror of the cross. Each of these interpretations would be valid. But I find myself standing in front of the Transfiguration, gazing at that light shining forth from Jesus. It tells us that where Jesus is, there love is, shining its light and bringing new hope, new courage, new peace. This, it seems to me, is the Christian task today, to make Jesus known and loved, to unveil that love, and allow its light to shine in our world. Where we can do this we will find, as St Paul wrote, that the transfiguring light shining out of Christ, transforms everyone it touches, so that they too are transfigured (2 Cor. 4.6).
It is in the light of the transfiguration that we have to read the story of the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Gen. 22). Parents today read this story with horror, understandably so. But we have to remember that the willingness of Christ to go the cross was precisely so that humankind could be offered a way out of sin. For centuries children have died in wars and famines, they have died of easily preventable diseases. They have died of abuse and neglect. The death of the Son of God on the cross challenges humankind to put an end to sin, and to strive for a world where such suffering is banished forever.