Calvin – of the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon – had a big upside down cardboard box he called the “transmogrifier.” Calvin used the transmogrifier to turn himself and Hobbes into a wide variety of creatures. Set the dial to the desired new thing you wanted to become (i.e. write it on the side of the box), and the next thing you know you’re a bug or a tiger or a dinosaur or even a particle of light.
At one point Calvin tried to get his boyhood nemesis – his geeky classmate Susie – to get into the transmogrifier so he could turn her into a bowl of chowder.
The problem, of course, was that only Calvin and Hobbes could see whatever it was they turned themselves into with the transmogrifier. Everyone else would still see him as just a kid.*
Such seems to be the fantasy of every young child who dreams of being more than they are; something that could help them deal with the childhood angst of feeling powerless.
It reminds me of when my nephew Joseph was about four or so, and whenever his mother wanted him to do something that he didn’t want to do, he assumed his “He-Man” pose (from his favorite show Masters of the Universe).
I remember one such occasion with Joseph escaping from the bathtub and running down the hallway with his mother in hot pursuit; to then stand dripping-wet-naked in the kitchen with his mother demanding, “Joseph, you go get back into that bathtub right now!”
Suddenly Jojo assumes the power-pose and transmogrifies (in his own little mind) into He-Man: “I don’t have to go anywhere with you!”
A delusion that lasted just about as long as it took for his mother to pick him, tuck him under her arm, and haul him back down the hall to the bathroom.
Today is Transfiguration Sunday. The transfiguration of Jesus is an event shrouded in mystery. Jesus took three of his disciples – Peter, James and John – and went up to the mountaintop, whereupon Jesus is “transfigured before them.”
The Greek word is metamorphoun; literally meaning “to change.”
But `change’ how, exactly? That word, itself, can have a lot of different connotations.
We “change” a baby: we take a wet, dirty, stinky infant and “change” it into a new warm, soft and snuggly, sweet smelling baby.
We “change” our minds: we take new ideas and information, integrate them into our existing mindset, and come to different conclusions.
We make “change” of a twenty dollar bill: we turn it into two fivers and a ten spot.
We “change” our ways: we are living our life one way and then something happens to lead us into take a different tack in life.**
In each case something significant –sometimes profoundly significant – has changed, but the essential reality of the subject remains the same: wet or dry, the baby is still the same precious child; the mind, thinking differently though it may be, is still anchored in the same brainpan; twenty bucks is twenty bucks is twenty bucks; the life that’s made a turn around is the still the one and only life that individual has ever had.
The `change’ is a more a matter of perception; how the reality is viewed.
They went up to the mountaintop and Jesus is “…transfigured before them,” says Mark, “and his clothes became dazzling white.”
“And his face shone like the sun,” concurs Matthew.”
“The appearance of his face changed,” editorializes Luke.
In other words, it is his outward appearance that is `changed,’ not his essence or his identity or the reality of who he was. Jesus went up the mountain as the Messiah and he came down that mountain the selfsame Messiah. It was the disciples’ perception of Jesus that was truly transformed—their understanding of who and what Jesus was.
Rather, let us say it was the beginning of the disciples’ transformation.
It’s no coincidence that, just prior to this mountaintop experience, Mark tells the account of Peter rebuking Jesus. Jesus, for the first time, foretells his death and resurrection to his disciples. But Peter has his own agenda. Jesus was supposed to be the great and conquering hero; all-powerful, invincible; sweeping aside all who stood in his way. Jesus was supposed to come onto the scene and take charge of the situation – put down those nasty Roman oppressors and establish his own kingdom upon the earth – with, by the way, his erstwhile disciples ruling by his side, along with all the perks thereof.
When he heard Jesus’ prediction, Peter’s first reaction was, “God forbid that anything like that would happen, Lord. We won’t let it happen!”
Do you remember Jesus’ response to his number guy: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind, not on divine things, but on human things.” Ouch!
Now here we are upon the mountain, in the afterglow of a dazzling display of divinity, and Peter still doesn’t seem to get it. Jesus is transfigured before their very eyes. God’s voice speaks out of the cloud identifying Jesus as his Son, the Beloved. And, in the aftermath of this supernatural event, Peter is still referring to Jesus as “Rabbi.” Teacher.
“It’s good that we’re all here together – for this auspicious occasion – Rabbi! Now let’s build some booths to put you guys in! Let’s box this thing up!”
You might say that Peter wanted to build three transmogrifiers so he could change this uncanny incident into something he could wrap his mind around.
It’s no wonder that, on their way back down the mountain, Jesus suggests, `Listen, it would probably be better if you kept quiet about all this. No one is going to understand or believe it. You guys don’t even understand or believe it.’
‘You’ll just have to wait until it all becomes clear – when I’ve risen from the dead.’
But the befuddled disciples still had no earthly idea what Jesus was talking about.
The thing is, for Mark, in his gospel account of the transfiguration, it was all about Jesus: his true identity, his glory revealed; and the divine confirmation of that truth.
But – I believe that – for God, this divine revelation of his Son was all about the disciples. This wasn’t just a private holy fireworks display to honor God’s Son. It was about helping the disciples begin to understand Who this was that they had been following around; and to help them prepare for the rocky road ahead. Through Jesus’ transfiguration, God intended to begin transforming the disciples’ own hearts and minds that – in Jesus’ reflected light – they might gain a greater understanding of who they were called to be as his disciples.
William Sloane Coffin aptly summed it up like this: “Jesus is both a mirror to our humanity and a window to divinity, a window revealing as much of God as is given mortal eye to see. When Christians see Christ empowering the weak, scorning the powerful, healing the wounded, and judging their tormentors, we are seeing transparently the power of God at work. What is finally important is not that Christ is God-like, but God is Christ-like. God is like Christ. That’s what we need to know, isn’t it? Then we know how to pray—“through Jesus Christ, our Lord,” who gives us the right and confidence to pray the way we do.”
Notice that God confirms Jesus as the Christ by simply saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” That was it. The funny thing was, Jesus didn’t actually say anything up there on the mountain. So I take God’s word to mean, `Listen to him when you get back down to the plains and valleys’:
Listen when he says that whoever receives a little child receives him, and the God who is in him.
Listen when he says love your neighbor.
Listen when he says love your enemy.
Listen when he tells a story about a neighbor, wounded, lying by the side of the road, and a total stranger, an unclean foreigner – the Good Samaritan – who stops and helps.
Listen when he says forgive those who hurt you, turn the other cheek to those who strike you.
Listen when he says, if you give your life away for my sake, you will find it.
Listen when he says do not be afraid, for I will be with you always, to the end and beyond.
For, ultimately, it is not upon the mountaintop that the most profound revelations occur. Rather, it’s during the course of our everyday, ordinary existence – as we strive to follow Jesus Christ through this world – that God in Christ reveals himself to us.
A boyhood friend of mine used to have a hat for every TV show he watched. When Roy Rogers came on, he would go get his cowboy hat. When Dragnet was on, he would put on his police cap. When Buck Rogers was on, he would don his space helmet. When Superman was on, he ran to get the red cape his mother had made out of an old tablecloth.
“Everyone wants to be the hero of their own life’s story,” said the novelist John Barth.
Children abound with such fantasies. But Jesus is calling us to `put away childish ways.’ Jesus wants his disciples to learn to see him, and themselves, in the light of God’s truth.
It isn’t by trying to be something we are not, or by garnering greater personal – or even supernatural – power that we become `heroes’ in God’s story. For the first will be last and the least will become the greatest of all. Rather, it is through vulnerability – by emptying ourselves even as Jesus did – that God may then fill us with the powerful Spirit of love and mercy and grace.
Wrote the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke:
As once the winged energy of delight
carried you over childhood’s dark abysses,
now beyond your own life build the great
arch of unimagined bridges.
Wonders happen if we can succeed
in passing through the harshest danger;
but only in a bright and purely granted
achievement can we realize the wonder.
To work with Things in the indescribable
relationship is not too hard for us;
the pattern grows more intricate and subtle,
and being swept along is not enough.
Take you practiced powers and stretch them out
until they span the chasm between the two
contradictions . . .
For the God wants to know himself in you.
Through Jesus Christ.
(*Thanks to Jill Duffield [ed.] for her inspiring article in The Presbyterian Outlook)
(**Thanks to Leonard Sweet for his word study in “Do You Know Sarah Smith?”)