Urine and Transfiguration

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During the Gospel reading for today concerning the Transfiguration, I confess to being myself somewhat transfigured by a thought somewhat ancillary yet wholly related to the subject matter. This was occasioned by the use of the translation of the Revised Standard Version which retains some archaisms not readily found in more modern versions. The reading goes as such (in part):

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves; and he was transfigured before them, and his garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them.

(Mark 9:2-3 RSV)

The term “fuller” is generally rendered “no one” in newer translations, as the occupation of fuller does not exist to any great extent in the modern era given the different means of producing textiles.

However, the term brought an instant chuckle to me, as I was reminded of a post I wrote several years ago concerning textile creation in the ancient world. And although it is completely anachronistic for me to have the reaction I do, it never ceases to amuse me that clothing manufacture in the ancient world- especially for higher end garments- relied heavily upon urine.

As a brief summary, urine was used in the fulling process to remove impurities and particles from the fabric which would prepare the garment to be dyed, as the fulling process enabled the dye to adhere more completely (the urine acting as a mordant).

And evidently camel’s urine was especially prized for its mordant qualities, reserved for the very best fabrics.

The ancient world did not lack of sense of humor about itself, and many authors wryly related how fullers would often place pots outside of their establishments for pedestrians to, ahem, make a contribution. So widespread was this practice that not only did certain areas of the city understandable stink to high heaven, but the government even imposed taxes upon alleyway pots.

But possibly the worst job might have been the one who had to work the urine into the garment, which often entailed treading garments repeatedly in a vat filled to one’s ankles with urine.

All that is of course interesting history, but after the amusement of the thought died down, a deeper thought replaced it. In the Transfiguration, a glimpse of Christ’s true union with the Father is revealed. It is as if the veil is pulled back just a little bit, and the witnesses to this event are overcome.

Jesus’ garments are said to become luminous and glistening. Matthew’s account says that “his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light.” It is almost as if in the Transfiguration the physical nature of Jesus becomes transparent so that the glory of the union of the Trinity shines through, but actually so much so as to be translucent, as the wonder overtakes the ability to parse out the particulars.

Jesus’s garments- which had very likely been fulled in their time- essentially fade away, letting the purity of his being and the love between him and the Father to bleed through.

It struck me that we all have our own garments, and in various ways we attempt to craft them as finely as we can. We can attempt to remove the impurities and to prepare them to become something beautiful. We can even go the whole way and bleach them until to all appearances they shine and dazzle.

But in the end our best attempts to live as we should or to do right are really so much urine rubbed time and again into our garments. We sometimes even get so used to the repeated treading that we can eventually get used to the smell.

The Venerable Bede notices in this passage that

It is evident to everyone that there is no one who can live on earth without corruption and sorrow. So it is evident to all who are wise… that there is no one who can live on earth without being touched by some sin. But what a cleansing agent… cannot do on earth, that the Lord will do in heaven. He will purify the church, which is his clothing, “from all defilement of flesh and spirit,” renewing [her] besides with eternal blessedness and light of flesh and spirit.

(Bede, Exposition on the Gospel of Mark)

In the early church baptism was often carried out by having the catechumens divest themselves of their garments before entering the baptismal font, and, after emerging, clothing them with garments of pure white. This was to signify both the act of being buried in death with Christ and being raised to new life- which is described in the scriptures as the “pledge of a clear conscience toward God”- as well as the baptized person’s incorporation into the body of Christ, his Bride. The imagery of Revelation speaks of this union of love:

“Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.

(Revelation 19:6-8 RSV)

St. Paul speaks of how we have become the righteousness of God, and the way this is accomplished is by God’s love being shed abroad in our hearts. The righteous acts of the saints flow out of this charity between God and man, the state of “belovedness” the Jesus prefigures in his Transfiguration. Bede understands the transformation of his clothing as such:

If anyone asks what the Lord’s garments, which became white as snow, represent typologically, we can properly understand them as pointing to the church of his saints [who]… at the time of resurrection will be purified from every blemish of iniquity and at the same time from all the darkness of mortality.

(ibid.)

In the Transfiguration we get a glimpse of what God intends for the union of God and man to be, where the garments that we have bear become cleansed of their impurities, become translucent in his presence. Only when we have God’s love poured into our hearts can we dispense with our vats full of urine.

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Jason Watson

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