I am anticipating the deciduous trees begin their annual transformation from lush green canopies to brightly-hued foliage to bare branches. It is part of the wheel of the year, a continually turning scenario that repeats again and again, but never seems to be boring or tiresome. I love spring and fall; watching the world wake up in spring and then drift off to sleep in fall is comforting, somehow. Even in winter, when the world is cold and bare, the promise of the spring is still there, and we wait for the annual transfiguration. And just because this part of Arizona is high desert, we still have trees that shed their leaves and periods of bare branches.
Transfiguration –(a) a marked change in form or appearance, a metamorphosis; or (b) a change that glorifies or exalts.* Normally, I do not think we would consider everyday events as transfigurations, but technically they can be, at least, as far as definition (a) goes. A caterpillar changing into a butterfly could be considered a transfiguration although usually we just think of it as a change in form. Caterpillars are pretty ugly things, for many of us anyway; but the butterfly that emerges from the chrysalis is anything but ugly. We delight in the butterfly although we do not always appreciate the caterpillar. Still, it is a pretty good example of an outward change in form or metamorphosis.
There are inward transfigurations, like seeing the face of a mother who has spent hours in labor, her hair is wet and messy, her face tired and lined, covered in sweat. Lay her baby in her arms or on her chest for the first time, though, and watch the transformation. Almost all evidence of pain is gone, replaced by a glow of love and wonder. Her hair is still a mess, she is still sweaty and tired, but her face betrays the inward transformation from woman to mother, from pain to total, complete love.
The two transfigurations with which we are most familiar, though, come from the Bible. In the Hebrew Bible, Moses went up Mt. Sinai where he met you in all your radiance, and his own face was transformed because of it. In the second transfiguration scene, Jesus and three disciples went up to the mountain and experienced the same supernatural thing. This time, though, the disciples saw not just Jesus but also Moses and Elijah within the luminous cloud. The parallels between the two transfiguration scenes are very clear. Moses was the great lawgiver, while Jesus was the fulfillment of that law. The presence of Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest figures of Jewish history, must have been overwhelming to the three disciples. Yet the defining moment is when you spoke, Abba, declaring that Jesus was your beloved son and that they were to hear him.
The descent of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism and your words then may or may not have been audible to anyone but Jesus. We are not told whether that transformation was an interior or exterior one. On the mountain, though, it was very much an external event, witnessed by three persons other than Jesus. Somehow the presence of three disciples has a sort of mystical connection with your voice, Jesus, and the presence of the cloud, sometimes recognized as the Holy Spirit. It is this deliberate, visible, and audible annunciation that raises Jesus in the eyes of his friends and disciples as truly someone other than just an itinerant rabbi who could heal, calm waters, and exorcise demons. Many rabbis of the time could do similar things, but here you were, stating in no uncertain terms that Jesus was indeed your beloved son, your chosen one.
It is no wonder Peter, James and John were dumbfounded. It is no wonder they wanted to build three huts on the mountain, much as they would build huts at the upcoming festival of Sukkoth in Jerusalem. Jesus forbade that, though, and told the disciples not to talk of what had happened until after his death and resurrection. They all then went down the mountain to continue their journeying, but you can bet Peter, James and John thought and thought about what they had seen, what Jesus’ words meant, and what was going to happen to him and, ultimately, to them.
Transfigurations happen, some simple things, some like Jesus terribly complex and life-altering ones. Transformations like trees changing leaf color are perfectly natural, just like the transformation of a brand-new mother’s face. Still, in human terms, most of those transfigurations come from one basic thing – love. I cannot say a tree feels love or just responds to a biological and annual imperative, nor can I say they do not. Trees seem to grow best when they are tended and cared for – loved, in a sense. Yet human beings too are transformed by love and care, whether it is the giving of love or receiving of it, or even both.
Jesus, I think, was transfigured not necessarily to teach the disciples something they needed to learn. I think the transfiguration was simply you surrounding Jesus with a visible form of your love, calling their attention to the status he held as your beloved son, and encouraging the disciples to pay attention to his words. It was a gesture of love. You knew what Jesus was going to be facing all too soon. I do not think Jesus ever doubted your love or felt far from it, but I like to think that that numinous moment on the mountain spiritually recharged his batteries and proclaimed him as your own. Perhaps Moses and Elijah were there as symbols, but perhaps to also give encouragement and support. I do not know, but I do know you were not shy about your love of Jesus at that moment. You chose to have human, flawed disciples see the power of that love, and hopefully remember that in the upcoming days that would be so traumatic.
Abba, I cannot claim a transfiguration, but I do not need a cloud to remind me that I may not be Jesus, but I am still a beloved child of yours. Perhaps the true transfiguration for me is acknowledging that and truly believing it deep down in my heart. Perhaps it provides a transformation of the inward kind, a conversion of thoughts from more worldly things to heavenly ones. I do not look any different when I look in a mirror, but if I look deep inside me, I see the gradual transformation of my heart and soul. That is my personal transfiguration.
I love you.