Trauma and Transfiguration (3): The Transfiguration of Trauma

This is the third in a series of four posts under the general title “Trauma and Transfiguration.”

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            Sing me a new song; the world is transfigured and all the heavens are full of joy.

                                  —Nietzsche, letter to Peter Gast from Turin, dated January 4, 1889


Sometimes, the worst mischance can turn out to be the best chance. When that happens, trauma is transfigured. To understand what that means, however, it is important to remember that to be transfigured is not to be transformed.

For example, in the Christian Gospel story when Peter, James, and John go up with him “into a high mountain apart” (Matthew 17:1) to pray, and experience there Jesus’s “transfiguration,” they do not see him being transformed into some other person or given some new shape. Whatever else he may have been, Jesus was never a shape-shifter. Atop that high mountain he continued to be present to the three disciples just as he had always been, the same Jesus they had known and been following to that point. What the three witnessed was no change in that familiar form. Rather, what by lucky chance befell the three disciples that day was the event of suddenly seeing Jesus, the same Jesus that they had known all along, in an altogether new light, a light that cast him in a new figure, to stand alongside Elijah and Moses, revealed as the fulfillment of the prophecy and promise those two had so long carried.

It can be transfiguring to read the entirety of the Gospel story of Jesus from birth to death and beyond in the light cast by that transfiguration story (that story-within-the-larger-story) of what befell Peter, James, and John on the mountaintop that day. Read in the light of that single embedded story of transfiguration, the entire Jesus story--the Gospel as a whole--suddenly appears as a transfiguration story, with each embedded story, not just that one, now telling both a transfigured and, more importantly, transfiguring tale.

So, for instance, can the whole end-story of what scholars take to be the original ending of the first-written Gospel, that of Mark, be read. In Mark’s original end-story to his whole telling of the Gospel story, “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome” on the third day after the crucifixion went carrying spices to anoint Jesus in his tomb, only to find the stone covering the entry already removed. When they went inside they saw

a young man in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Matt 16:1-8, NRSV)

It is not unreasonable to read Luke, the writer of the last of the three Synoptic Gospels, as himself having read Mark* in a transfigurational fashion. Thus, alone among the Gospel accounts, Luke has the women who come to the tomb to anoint Jesus encountering not one shining figure, but rather “two men in dazzling clothes”—just as, be it noted, Jesus as the three disciples newly saw him atop the Mount of Transfiguration was flanked by the two figures of Moses and Elijah. Luke says that although the women were “terrified and bowed their faces,” the two men consoled and elevated them by saying, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, when he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” (Luke 24:4-7)

As read under the light of the earlier transfiguration story, the two dazzling figures’ closing remark there can be seen as transfiguring even the story of the Resurrection of Jesus as being a matter, not of “the reanimation of a corpse,” as 20th century Roman Catholic theologian Hans Küng puts it,** but as a matter of Jesus' own story not ending with his end on the cross.

Indeed, so read, the story of the Resurrection itself even casts the earlier agony of the cross in a new light, a light wherein that agony, even with all the wounds from it remaining fully open (see the story of “doubting Thomas,” in the fourth Gospel, that of John, Chapter 20, verses 24-29), is transfigured into glory. That can happen with even such horrendous trauma, so that what had up till then looked to be the most devastatingly intransigent defeat suddenly shows itself to be the most marvelously unsurpassable victory. 

 That’s just how it is with trauma.

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To be continued.


* Or at least the scholar-hypothesized “Q-source” that he and Matthew, but not Mark, are thought to have shared, and which Luke is taken more accurately and fully to reflect than does Matthew.

** In his book Eternal Life? Life After Death as a Medical, Philosophical, and Theological Problem, translated by Edward Quinn (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984), p. 104.