All Our Seeing Rinsed and Cleansed

Carl Heinrich Bloch, “The Transfiguration”

Transfiguration Sunday

Today in church we celebrate the time when Peter, James and John were granted a glimpse of heaven come to earth: Jesus is revealed to be divine as Moses and Elijah join him on a high mountain. Scottish poet Edwin Muir strives to capture the wonder and the beauty of the moment in “The Transfiguration.”

Here’s Matthew’s account (17:1-9):

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Muir invokes the garden of Eden before the fall to capture the freshness of the moment. A very earthy poet, Muir talks about how everything, even soiled clothing, shepherd huts, and dung heaps, are suddenly shown to be “grained with that fine dust that made the world.” After all, didn’t Jesus say, “To the pure all things are pure” and didn’t God see that the world He created was good? I am reminded of the hymn that we sang at our wedding, “Morning has broken like the first morning.”

Peter’s desire to build a shrine is his attempt to hold on to the moment, as though it is not real unless it leaves some tangible imprint. Muir gets at this human impulse when he has the speaker in his poem wish that the vision could last forever. He is, of course, disappointed:

Reality or vision, this we have seen.
If it had lasted but another moment
It might have held for ever! But the world
Rolled back into its place, and we are here,
And all that radiant kingdom lies forlorn,
As if it had never stirred…

When the moment passes, we are once again lost in labyrinths and tangled in our own devices. We can only imagine this other world that is denied us:

                                            …no human voice
Is heard among its meadows, but it speaks
To itself alone, alone it flowers and shines
And blossoms for itself while time runs on.

Yet there is hope. The poem is filled with images of cleansing and renewal, and the speaker foresees time spiraling backward. In perhaps a reference to “The Dream of the Rood ,” Muir imagines the tormented wood of the cross being dismantled and growing again into a tree. Betrayals will be undone as Humankind and Nature together call out together to Christ to return. All, even Judas, will rediscover the innocence of childhood.

The Transfiguration

By Edwin Muir

So from the ground we felt that virtue branch
Through all our veins till we were whole, our wrists
As fresh and pure as water from a well,
Our hands made new to handle holy things,
The source of all our seeing rinsed and cleansed
Till earth and light and water entering there
Gave back to us the clear unfallen world.
We would have thrown our clothes away for lightness,
But that even they, though sour and travel stained,
Seemed, like our flesh, made of immortal substance,
And the soiled flax and wool lay light upon us
Like friendly wonders, flower and flock entwined
As in a morning field. Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
And nowhere? Was the change in us alone,
And the enormous earth still left forlorn,
An exile or a prisoner? Yet the world
We saw that day made this unreal, for all
Was in its place. The painted animals
Assembled there in gentle congregations,
Or sought apart their leafy oratories,
Or walked in peace, the wild and tame together,
As if, also for them, the day had come.
The Shepherds’ hovels shone clean at the heart
As on the starting-day. The refuse heaps
Were grained with that fine dust that made the world;
For he had said, “To the pure all things are pure.”
And when we went into the town, he with us,
The lurkers under doorways, murderers,
With rags tied round their feet for silence, came
Out of themselves to us and were with us,
And those who hide within the labyrinth
Of their own loneliness and greatness came,
And those tangled in their own devices,
The silent and the garrulous liars, all
Stepped out of their dungeons and were free.
Reality or vision, this we have seen.
If it had lasted but another moment
It might have held for ever! But the world
Rolled back into its place, and we are here,
And all that radiant kingdom lies forlorn,
As if it had never stirred; no human voice
Is heard among its meadows, but it speaks
To itself alone, alone it flowers and shines
And blossoms for itself while time runs on.

But he will come again, it’s said, though not
Unwanted and unsummoned; for all things,
Beasts of the field, and woods, and rocks, and seas,
And all mankind from end to end of the earth
Will call him with one voice. In our own time,
Some say, or at a time when time is ripe.
Then he will come, Christ the uncrucified
Christ the discrucified, his death undone,
His agony unmade, his cross dismantled—
Glad to be so—and the tormented wood
Will cure its hurt and grow into a tree
In a green springing corner of young Eden,
And Judas damned take his long journey backward
From darkness into light and be a child
Beside his mother’s knee, and the betrayal
Be quite undone and never more be done.

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