“One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant insect.” Oops! Wrong opening line. I should have said, “One day, Jesus of Nazareth was walking along with his pals when he decided to take them up a high mountain, and suddenly he started to glow as bright as the sun, and even his clothes were gleaming white.” The title of Kafka’s brilliant, bizarre short story is “The Metamorphosis.” The Greek word for “transfiguration” is “metamorphosis,” a meta (large) morphing into something very different. Thankfully for Christ (and us), it’s not a giant bug, but an exaggerated version of his divine self – glowing, gleaming, dazzling – a momentary visual manifestation of all the holiness radiating in and through him all the time. The disciples see him in that moment and they finally get it – they realize through all of their senses just who their teacher really is.
Today we end the season of Epiphany, as one writer puts it, with the “epiphany of all epiphanies.” Today we all see the miracle – the spectacle – of the glowing Messiah, today, before we descend from the heights of transfiguration into the depths of Lent – Lent, the rift valley through the center of our lives, our commitments, our very faith. To our left and to our right will be the high ridges of our practical accomplishments, of all that we do so easily, of the things and moments of which we are proudest (often for good reason). Life is pretty good up on those ridges – being up there, getting and staying high – is a lot better than the valley of self-investigation that we are called to walk through during Lent. Who wouldn’t rather be up on our ridges, or better yet, enjoying a mountaintop high in the close company of Christ?
The mountaintop transfiguration of Jesus is the New Testament analog to the mountaintop encounter between Moses and God – the divine presence descending in a cloud, the shining and radiating of Moses and Christ, the divine reassurance of the way forward, either through the tablets of God’s law or the divine voice that declares Jesus to be God’s son and commands us all to “listen to him.” Moses ascends the great mountain so that the people will know that God continues to lead them, continues to communicate with them, and continues to have a plan of blessing and of salvation for them no matter how many challenges they experience. Just so, Jesus, Peter, James, and John go up the mountain before they start the journey to Jerusalem. There, they hear the divine voice confirm its relationship to Christ as son, something for them to remember as they make their way through Jesus’ betrayal, trial, torture, and brutal execution. We are to remember these critical mountaintop events when things are going well in our own walk of faith – or in our lives in general – and also (or especially) when they are not. Sometimes we are getting high because our faith is strong and joyous, but plenty of the time we are not. We are dealing with big challenges in our lives or doubts, or anger, or fears. We need the reassurance of God’s steady hand, commanding voice, and saving plan.
We don’t remember these things, though, do we? Life is very difficult, and we decide to take matters into our own hands. We imply that God is no longer at work, we are left to our own devices; the promises of our salvation – of goodness, of peace – must have expired. While Moses is on the mountain, his community resorts to fashioning a golden calf as the object of their worship. So much for the Holy One who led them out of Egypt and who at that moment was instructing Moses on the code for faithful living! The disciples who witnessed Christ’s metamorphosis are the ones who will deny knowing him when he is in Pilate’s clutches. They run from the cross, as fast as their legs can carry them. For them and for us, fear repeatedly trumps our faith. We can’t risk waiting; we can’t risk making ourselves vulnerable, either to our worries of faith or to the Pilates of the world. We decide to fix things – to create a new object of worship, a new way to get high, one that can’t disappoint us. Or we run away – that ends the problem once and for all.
There are indeed many ways in which we try to find substitutes for the “high” of a glimpse of God, a fleeting vision of God’s glory, a passing grasp of God’s love and truth. Choose your poison: drugs, alcohol, food, work, intimate relationships, exercise, possessions, the acquisition of wealth. Most of these things are actually wonderful in their proper proportions, but become snares when we turn to them as alternate means of getting high. We turn to them because we do not want to make the effort to climb a mountain – or whatever disciplined work may be required to glimpse God’s glory. And we turn to them because we fear that the promises of God just aren’t working. Life is hard, and full of suffering for so many. We may not say that we don’t think God is at work, but we sure act like it. In a quiet panic, we start to worship other gods; we try to get the high we want in other ways – the blessed assurance, the love, the glory, the meaning and purpose, the help, the salvation.
This coming Lent and always, let us try to do the opposite. Let us persist in faith. Let us keep trusting and trusting and trusting that God is God and Christ is Christ. Believing this, what have we left truly to fear? Let us do the hard work of scaling mountains to catch s glimpse of the glory of God. Let us go for the “high” that we do so deeply yearn for. What would our own metamorphosis look like? (Not a giant cockroach, hopefully!) When we get high, as did Moses and Jesus, what or whom do we turn into? What does it do to us?
Do we shine, as they did? Do we radiate light? Surely we can’t do it with the same intensity, but can we not glow from within? Believing in the promises of God creates a joy that exudes through our eyes, arms, hands, heart, our every pore. What else might we turn into, metamorphose into? Certainly a truer version of ourselves - of who God made us to be. Who would we be as more genuinely Christian selves? Perhaps we would be kinder, more daring, more truthful, more forgiving, less angry, less envious, less perfectionist. Perhaps we would wake one morning to find that we had been transformed into a giant disciple. Perhaps our lives would be conformed to the practice of, as the apostle calls it, “a ministry of reconciliation.” How badly our friends, universities, communities, country, and world need that. To reconcile is not to make disagreements simply go away. It is to bring real reckoning to the parties, to help them establish justice between themselves. We need reconciliation between clergy of every denomination and those in their care whom they have abused. We need reconciliation in a country wherein young black men can be shot dead and their killers face no penalty – reconciliation between those being victimized and those of us who relate to them out of our prejudice and our profound fear of them. We need so many ministers of reconciliation. Let us dare to permit ourselves to be transfigured!
In the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa described Moses’ ascent of the mountain as a step-by-step process of conversion – plodding, hard. With each step he took he thought he had finished the journey, only to realize that he had come to a place where he could notice… one more step. And so the journey continued, step after step. It was not a tedious or fruitless journey – God was indeed waiting at the summit, as promised. With each step, Moses was not satisfied but more encouraged. For each of us, wrote Gregory, the ascent towards a glimpse of God should increase within us, step by challenging step, the “desire to see more.” Let us make our own journeys in this spirit, my friends – hungry, giddy, yearning to inch closer and closer to the throne of grace and glory. The ascent is not a punishment or even a burden, but our greatest privilege and gift.
Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, eds. D.L. Bartlett and B.B. Taylor, (Louisville: WJK Press, 2010), pp. 434-439, 452-457.