Transfiguration of Power
"And he was transfigured before them..."
February 12, 2021, Words By: Fred Laceda, Image By: Image: Abueva's transfiguration, Eternal Gardens, Baesa, Caloocan City, Philippines
Recent events in Myanmar and the Philippines loom large in my mind as I write this reflection from Manila. Myanmar is in the midst of a military coup, while the Philippine Supreme Court deliberates on the constitutionality of an anti-terror law. The law gives state agents unbridled power to declare who is a terrorist without oversight. As one who serves among the most vulnerable, these turn of events send a chilling message.
Sadly, these are not isolated events. In the last couple of years, in different political contexts, we have seen leaders with tyrannical tendencies rise to power. Which begs the question: Why do we gravitate toward such leaders? It’s as if we are stuck with a single paradigm of power and authority that is violent and coercive.
In his multivolume work Homo Sacer, Italian intellectual Giorgio Agamben provides an answer to this question. The west, he says, is reared by what he calls “sovereign power.” The sovereign is a figure in Roman antiquity who enjoys being above the law.
The figure of the sovereign was appropriated by the Christian west, culminating in the Carolingian Emperor Charlemagne in C. E. 800 (he arrogated to himself both political and religious powers), and continues on to this day. It seems to me that this notion of power by force has seeped deep into not only the heart of nation-states but also the heart of every human if we are honest.
Can we move out from this paradigm of power?
Mark’s text this week invites us to reflect on what it means for Jesus to be transfigured. Here we encounter the scarcity of our imagination about power. For most of us, to imagine Jesus as powerful is to conjure the image of “sovereign,” but I believe that is to miss something critical in the text. Instead, perhaps we are being ushered to a new way of seeing power and authority.
The story of the Transfiguration starts with Jesus bringing his disciples to a mountain. There he was transfigured before them, his clothes became dazzling white. Then out of nowhere Moses and Elijah joined them. Peter, perhaps starstruck, offers to build tents for Jesus and the Old Testament luminaries. Peter’s response prefigures much of the church’s attitude in the face of spectacular power — to seize and sacralize it. But let’s not be too hard on Peter lest we judge ourselves.
Most interpreters view Jesus’ transfiguration as an unveiling of his glory. But the word doxa (glory) is not present in this text. Admittedly it’s implied in Matthew’s and explicit in Luke’s versions of the transfiguration. But not here in Mark. When Mark uses the word doxa it’s in the context of Jesus’ path of suffering and future vindication.
Can we see?
Power, in the Gospel of Mark, is revealed on the cross. What we call powerlessness, God calls power. That’s what mercy looks like.
Jesus’ transfiguration transforms the way we see power and authority. Real power is not expressed through violence but in the ability to give voice to the voiceless, to share power with the powerless. His glory is not through the spectacular show of force, but in solidarity with those who suffer, those who are reduced to a bare life.
It may not sound like much, but this is the power that liberates me and the community I serve. This is the power that frees us from our own tyranny to love and serve. This, it seems to me, is what the Gospel is transfiguring now, and it can’t happen fast enough.